I started building links in 2010. The process then was very simple: scale your outreach to build backlinks directly to the pages we want to rank.
Approaching link building with this perspective can lead one to focus too much on nurturing skills for bulk outreach or email automation.
These are good skills, but the best link building methods are based on the marketing of content.
Modern link building uses expert content to engage with content creators around a topic, showing experience and expertise.
This is the marketing of content, which is a different skill than traditional link building.
If you’re new to link building, eventually, you’ll reach a fork in the road. The first path is building links with highly controllable methods. The second path is to be a marketer of content.
The second path is harder at first, but staying focused will lead you to build more skills in content marketing.
It’s harder because you have to become great at understanding what the audience wants to read.
This guide is for the second path.
Keep reading to establish a foundation for your professional growth in building links from highly reputable and trusted websites.
What is link building today?
Link building is an SEO practice to increase the number of inferred or direct hyperlinks (links) to a webpage.
While initially focused on website list building and outreach, it has since expanded to include content marketing and strategy.
Modern link builders use traditional methods like building lists and fixing broken links but also analyze, create, and share content.
Link building has changed. Now, links come from creating and sharing good content rather than being the main focus.
6 types of link building
We will group link building tactics and strategies into one of these categories.
These groupings require wildly different link building and content marketing skills to execute and oversee a campaign.
1. Earned links
These links appear naturally when content creators find your content valuable and link to it without your direct request.
To earn links, create content that creators want for their audience.
If the content is optimized to be linkable or shareable, they are likelier to share, discuss and ideally link to it.
Typical methods to distribute the content to earn links:
- Social ads remarketing
- Social ads
- Social media organic shares
- Google Ads
In contrast to link building outreach, earning a link does not require a request to place a link or share content.
2. Outreach-based links
Link building outreach is a proactive method. It involves contacting content creators or websites through email, phone or social media.
Outreach uses tactics from influencer marketing and digital PR to secure links.
An outreach campaign could use one or multiple of these campaign types:
- Linkable content: Strategically creating content that content creators want or need to link to or share.
- Expert sources: Being seen as an expert in a specific field can get you links from news sites, blogs, and industry publications.
- Add-on value: Adding value to creators by sharing their content or exchanging links helps them reach a wider audience and expand their community. Get creative with the add-ons to convince them to link back.
- Relationship building: Contacts that already know you tend to respond at a higher rate.
Dig deeper: Digital PR vs. manual link building: Adapting to the modern search landscape
3. Discovery links
Content creators constantly search and find data, quotes or helpful resources to enhance their content’s value to the reader.
During this research process, the creator saves and links to content.
This link building method doesn’t need outreach. It focuses on creating content that ranks for research keywords or in online research communities.
A popular example of a discovery link is targeting “statistic” keywords, like “SEO statistics 2023.”
Content creators use these types of search queries to research facts and data for their content.
Once the content ranks for those keywords, the content creators will find it naturally when searching.
4. Passive PR
You can get these links by answering requests for sources or experts. Journalists and content creators typically use special tools or communities to accomplish this.
For beginners, this type of link building is a simple process to find high-quality links without cold pitching.
To use this method, you must either have an expert or become an expert yourself. This is necessary to answer questions or provide quotes.
- Tip: Read the book “Mastery” by Robert Green to learn how to master link building – or anything.
5. Submitted links
Submit a site to directories, posts on social or forums, and other sites that don’t require significant vetting or editing by a community manager.
Although these links may not directly improve ranking they can provide traffic and more context to Google about the site’s topics or direct traffic.
6. Paid links
This technique is simply exchanging money to have a link placed on a website.
Sure, you can get a lot of links this way. However, many of these links are not beneficial for the site.
And despite being an easy link to build, analyzing these links’ impact is too complex for beginners to spend time on. You’ll find yourself building the wrong skills by focusing on paid, hurting your professional growth.
Furthermore, Google can identify and devalue many links that violate their spam policy.
However, a link builder can leverage sponsored links to share content strategically in a community. This is just another way to earn links by sharing content that is shareable.
Google says that “you might want to tell Google your relationship with the linked page,” recommending the use of rel=”sponsored”.
- Tip: Beginners should only use link building techniques that work with content creators. Find ways to enhance the content using subject matter expertise.
3 mistakes to avoid as a first-time link builder
I made a series of early mistakes that are common for first-time link builders.
However, these mistakes caused me to waste a lot of time, reduced campaign performance and delayed my professional growth.
I can’t urge you enough to avoid these mistakes:
Mistake: Focusing solely on paid links
Paid links are easy but addicting.
Don’t focus on paid links, and build skills for other link building techniques that are more impactful at scale.
Mistake: Not selecting niches
Not focusing on a niche, and building links from any place that will take the site. Building a reputation in a niche, not broad categories, takes much less effort.
Mistake: Thinking the goal was backlinks
Instead, focus on building relationships with content creators for a meaningful idea or concept.
Many people aim for a certain number of links each week or month, which can distract from working a valuable relationship with important creators.
Learn how to analyze content, find gaps, and create content that is helpful to their audience.
What are ‘quality backlinks’?
This is one of the most hotly debated topics in SEO. Google has a different definition from many SEOs for what makes a quality link.
But quality is much simpler than that. Here’s an overview:
- Google defines quality based on the reputation of the content and the company or people behind it.
- Some use SEO metrics like Domain Rating (DR) from Ahrefs to triangulate a quality site.
- A manual review of the content to identify if the creator understands the topics.
- PR or influencer marketing metrics like Brand Authority from Moz or social metrics in BuzzSumo.
Google provides some insight into how they view sites and content quality.
The Search Quality Rater guidelines detail how to evaluate a site’s quality.
Overall page quality rating considerations in the guidelines are:
- Quality for the main content.
- Reputation of the website and content creators.
- Experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trust (E-E-A-T).
The company provides the quality raters with a scale from lowest to highest quality.
The guidelines go on to include a “needs met rating scale” that reviewers use to “focus on user needs and think about how helpful and satisfying the result is for the users”
According to Ben Gomes, former Google VP of search engineering:
“You can view the rater guidelines as where we want the search algorithm to go… They don’t tell you how the algorithm is ranking results, but they fundamentally show what the algorithm should do.”
This suggests we can use these guidelines to understand a site’s reputation.
However, many digital marketers and SEOs use popular metrics from the main link tools Ahrefs, Moz, Majestic or Semrush.
Ahrefs’ link building guide has this to say about link quality:
“Nobody knows for sure how exactly Google measures the value of each link. But there are some general concepts of evaluating links that the SEO community believes to be true:
- Anchor text
- Nofollow vs. follow
Using third-party metrics has proven beneficial in reducing the time for evaluating a site’s quality during list building or to audit a competitor’s links.
Google’s review process takes time, but using quality metrics will speed up site reviews for list building and outreach.
However, using PR and social media metrics to find content creators creating engaging content.
Analyzing the content’s performance for a site will give you a list of quality sites by default.
- Tip: Identify and showcase your company’s expertise on sites that discuss your target subject instead of spending too much time building lists and evaluating each site. Find people talking about it and create a conversation.
Link building strategy basics
“Link building strategy” is the navigation of the marketplace of online content creation to secure links as a consequence of the marketing of content.
A link building strategy is a plan to improve a website’s reputation in search engines and readers, leading to better rankings.
As I explain in my article “How to create a link building strategy,” a strategy has three parts:
- Analysis: How to identify the tactic and messaging.
- Guiding policy: General approach or technique customized to the specific campaign.
- Steps: List of simple steps to execute the strategy.
To begin, choose one of the following methods. They help you get links fast and show how content creators in that field will respond to your message.
Link building techniques to start:
- Expert guest posting: Use your expertise to post on other websites about important topics in your industry.
- Passive PR: Respond to requests from content creators and journalists who are actively searching for expert sources for articles.
- Resource links: List your site, study, or product/service on sites that are already listing them.
Creating a list of sites, analyzing them, and customizing your pitch for outreach using the techniques above will ensure you are challenged to solve problems by showing your company or expertise and experience.
My article, 10 ways to build links for any website, has more advanced strategies for intermediate or advanced link builders.
Get the daily newsletter search marketers rely on.
A starter link building process
Although you should test other processes, this process will set a new link building program down the right path to scale up the market of content.
Step 1: Strategy and planning
Before diving in, outline a clear link building strategy. Define your goals, target audience and strategies.
- Linkable content or an expert?
- Can you build new content?
- How new is the site or company?
- Does your experience and expertise fill a gap or enhance an existing subject or conversation?
Step 2: List building
In this step, you’ll find potential link building opportunities using:
- Advanced search operators in Google. For example, if you’re in the health niche, you might search for “health + write for us” to find guest posting opportunities.
- Link databases like Majestics, Moz, Ahrefs, and Semrush.
You can also find sites with specialized list building tools or features. Pitchbox has default campaigns that use Semrush, Ahrefs and Moz APIs to create lists based on a type of campaign. Buzzstream is another low-cost option.
- Tip: Use the advanced search operator feature in Pitchbox to create larger lists of sites.
Step 3: Backlink outreach
Use the site lists to create an outreach strategy and contact the sites.
Based on the site list, determine which technique to use and group the sites by technique.
Select an email template that is best suited for the technique. For example, a guest posting strategy can use a standard guest posting template.
Then, customize the template based on the prospective site.
Step 4: Measurement and optimize
Evaluate the initial performance with a count of quality links obtained from influential content creators.
When evaluating the link building, focus on analyzing the messaging and how the contacts are responding or not responding.
The analysis needs to answer the question, “Why did the creators not want to share these topics?”
Refine the messaging to understand the wants and needs of the content creators in the specific niche.
Backlinks are not the end goal
Today, the emphasis isn’t just on finding links. It’s about sharing a message based on your experience and expertise.
Many link builders in the industry are now focusing on adding genuine value through content marketing and building relationships instead of just using ranking tactics.
For newcomers and veterans alike, the mantra remains the same: quality over quantity.
Avoid the allure of quick wins like paid links. Focus on content niches, compelling content and community relationships.
As tactics evolve, the heart of link building has grown to be about adding value, fostering relationships and ensuring sustainable success.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.