Link building is a vital part of SEO. Without links, the web is not really connected at all — it’s just a whole lot of isolated points (a bit like space, without the constellations). In addition to keeping the web all joined up, links help Google to understand the value of web pages, helping its algorithm to decide which pages should rank near the top for certain keywords.
As a result, links effectively “vouch” for the sites they point to — so if you can get a really relevant or popular site to add a link to your site, it can actually help your site’s pages to rank higher in the search results.
So, how do we decide where to get links from — and how do we determine the value of a link opportunity?
Follow vs nofollow
There are two types of links — standard links and “no-follow” links. So what’s the difference?
Rel=”nofollow” is a link attribute that tells Google not to let the link impact the target domain’s search ranking. Essentially, a nofollow link is one that doesn’t vouch for your site, and therefore has little value from an SEO point of view (but that doesn’t mean the placement isn’t good PR).
In order to get the most value for our clients from an SEO point of view, we focus on seeking out standard (or “followed”) links as part of our SEO campaigns. However, that’s not to say no-followed links are entirely useless. If brand awareness is a priority, we factor that into your earned media strategy, and will also look at getting coverage on popular sites that use rel=”nofollow” tags on their outbound links.
Topically relevant links help build your position within a certain industry, niche or subject area. Getting a link from a site that covers the same topic as yours helps Google to understand what your site is about, and as a result, your rankings can increase as Google becomes more confident that your site is an authority on your topic.
For example, a topically relevant link for an eCommerce site selling baking supplies might be:
- From a ‘must-have supplies’ article on a recipe site
- From a baking blog, reviewing a product line
- From a bakery who uses their cake toppers
- From a competition on a celebrity chef’s website
- From a recipe that uses their food colouring
- From a press release on an industry site (e.g. food & bev)
The trustworthiness and authority of a linking domain is also important. For example, a link from BBC News is generally worth much more than a link from a small news blog.
We use a tool called Majestic to determine the value of earned media opportunities. When we are investigating a potential link opportunity, we input the domain into Majestic, and Majestic returns a graph showing the site’s Flow Metrics (Trust Flow and Citation Flow).
Citation Flow indicates how influential a page might be based on the number of sites that link to it.
Trust Flow indicates how trustworthy a page is likely to be based on the trustworthiness of the sites that link to it — the theory being that trustworthy sites are likely to link to other trustworthy sites.
Below, we can see the Flow Metrics for the BBC website. Both Trust Flow and Citation Flow are 94/100 — meaning that a very high number of very trustworthy sites are linking to the domain.
The higher these numbers, the more valuable a link is to your site.
We also look at Topical Trust Flow, which indicates how much a site is considered an authority in a certain area. We can see the BBC is strongest for Television, Radio, and News.
Each of the 4.5 million sites linking to the BBC domain are plotted on the graph below.
For local businesses with physical shop fronts or service areas, local links and citations can also provide a lot of value. ‘Local links’ typically refer to links from sites focused on the local area, such as tourist information, tourist board websites, trusted directories of local businesses, moving up to large directories such as Yelp, Yell.com or 192.com.
These links are generally nofollow, but they are an integral part of a successful local SEO campaign, and help businesses to appear in the local pack (the Google map that appears above organic results for location-based searches). For example:
So, why are these local links useful for helping your site appear in map and local search results? Essentially, they give Google evidence that your store is located where you say it is.
The last thing Google wants to do is send people out to a store only for it not to be there, so if there are multiple sources saying where you’re based, Google can be more confident that it's delivering a good user experience by sending people to the right place.
How do we get links?
There are several stages to our earned media strategy:
Using Majestic, we start by taking a look at your backlink profile so we can see what kind of links you already have. If you have high Citation Flow but low Trust Flow, we’d prioritise getting links from sites with high Trust Flow in order to balance this out.
It’s good to have a balanced backlink profile, so we also try to add variety if we notice that your backlinks consist primarily of, for example, “useful links” pages on local websites. Aiming for a variety of anchor text is also important, as this appears much more natural and avoids the penalties that come with over-optimised links.
Once we’ve got a good idea of where you are already, we then export the backlink profiles and Flow Metrics of your competitors, prioritising those that rank higher than you for your targeted terms. We go through every link in this list, determining whether you could achieve a similar link from the same domain. From our final “yes” list, we then break them down into three categories: low effort, medium effort and high effort.
Google search operators (e.g. “quotation marks” and inurl:) are also useful for finding sites that have linked to similar sites in the past, or are open to a certain type of brand collaboration or resource. For example, we could use these to find blogs about cats that have run pet food competitions in the past.
Earned media strategies
Generally, we begin looking for earned media opportunities in the following areas:
- Mention optimisation (finding non-linked mentions of your brand online)
- Link reclamation/broken link building (finding broken links that used to point to your site and getting them updated)
- Investigating competitors’ newly acquired links
- Brand advocates
- Sites that use your images or logo but don’t currently link to you
- Sponsoring a charity or team
- #JournoRequest / #PRRequest on Twitter
- Supporting low-key local events
- Speaking to suppliers/clients
- Local link building
- Ego bait articles (mentioning an influencer in an article so they are incentivised to share or link to it)
- Creating a useful guide or PDF we can offer to relevant publishers
- Creating content that answers commonly asked questions (e.g. Quora)
- Create a PR story using stats, data, company news, tools, online games, or stunts
- Building industry relationships and offering comments or insights on industry news
- Collaborative article creation
Outreach & placement
We use a tool called BuzzStream to manage relationships with publishers and streamline the outreach process. Whether it’s placing an infographic, organising a competition or writing an article, our outreach process begins when we make contact with the website.
Once we’ve made contact with a publisher, we begin discussions about how we can provide value to their audience, whether that’s by producing a useful PDF or by providing comment on industry happenings. This exchange involves multiple emails back and forth, and often a couple of phone conversations, too. It’s not quick work. Building relationships takes time, and nobody responds well to receiving an obviously templated or bulk email.
In order to increase our response rate, it’s important to approach this as a relationship, rather than a big ask.
Sometimes, for the more everyday opportunities mentioned above, we won’t need to create any content to earn you a link, and the process is much more simple. However, the most valuable links tend to require a lot more resources to acquire. For example, to obtain links from really high quality sites, we may need to allocate budget for content creation, research, or establishing on-going relationships. Once we’ve planned and created the content, we send it to the publisher for approval. If they’re happy, they’ll usually give us a go-live date so we’ll know when the article will be published.
Alongside the everyday techniques we use to earn links, it’s important that we keep thinking about bigger opportunities. The most effective SEO campaigns today are larger, PR-led content efforts — for example, a video, stunt, or large, very high-level content piece with accompanying graphics. This will depend on the client and their broader business objectives. While initiatives like this typically demand greater resources, the payoff is much higher, with the opportunity to earn links from high value, trusted sites like national newspapers and leading blogs.
A successful earned media strategy has to concentrate not only on functional link-earning tactics, but also keep creative content in mind — constantly being on the lookout for any gaps in the market, and nurturing relationships with influencers and publishers. This allows us to jump as soon as we spot an untapped content opportunity.
How does it work?
It’s very rare for a client to acquire a link and see an immediate uptick in search rankings, but we have seen it happen (usually when the link is extremely valuable).
Generally, though, it’s an accumulative thing. If your organic search traffic is up and your search visibility is improving (taking on-site factors and seasonal trends into account), then that’s a pretty good sign that it’s going well.
Businesses that don’t actively earn links will often find their rankings gradually slipping. There are two reasons for this:
- Competitors are earning new links all the time and therefore increasing their search visibility, pushing yours down
- If your site stops earning new backlinks, it’s going to seem to Google that the site used to update regularly with useful content that people wanted to vouch for, but maybe that’s changed, as nobody’s linking to it anymore
As a result, link building really needs to be an ongoing initiative - even if you’re already sitting in first place for your target keywords!
A final note
A link building campaign will only be successful if there is valuable content on-site to link back to — be it a great resource section, a stunt video, or an insightful blog post. Unless the earned media strategy involves competitions or product reviews, it’s very difficult to earn links back to product or category pages, as they simply don’t provide enough value to the publisher. After all, earned media has to be earned!