Getting backlinks has been and still is one of the most important ranking factors in determining a website’s ranking on the SERP (search engine results page).
Thus, link building is still one of the most important tactics in SEO and should be the core focus of any SEO strategy.
However, link building can be easier said than done and can involve several different skillsets from content creation to relationship building to sales and general marketing knowledge. That is why in this guide, we will discuss all you need to know about link building, from the basic concept of inbound links to advanced link building tactics.
Let us begin.
What Are Backlinks and Why Are They Important?
Backlinks also known as inbound links, are HTML hyperlinks on third-party sites that point to your site.
Links are the “vote of confidence”, a recommendation letter of the internet, and arguably the most valuable online commodity. When someone links to your site, that’s telling Google—and the other search engines—, as well as your audience that your site is credible and trustworthy, and the linked page/content contains reliable information.
Just like in the “real world”, a recommendation letter coming from famous people and relevant individuals will pack more weight, and so the source of the inbound links is also important. Links coming from authority sites that are related to your niche/industry will provide more value to your SEO.
According to Google themselves, we can improve the rank of our sites by increasing the number of high-quality backlinks.
How Can We Determine Backlinks Quality?
According to the latest Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (a book of guidelines provided by Google to human evaluators that manually evaluate websites and SERPs), a high-quality page is determined by its projection of E-A-T quality:
E for Expertise: referring to who is the creator of the main content (MC) on the website. If the content creator is someone with credible expertise, then the site is regarded as high-quality. The standard for expertise depends on the page’s topic. For YMYL content (more on this later), “expertise” here will translate to formal training, education, or credible experience on the topic.
A for Authoritative: in general, authoritativeness here refers to how acceptable the site—and the content creator—are as a good,reliable source of information.
T for Trustworthy: how trustworthy the site is in providing honest and factual information.
More About YMYL Site
YMYL stands for Your Money, Your Life, and is Google’s term referring to content or topics that can impact the consumer’s (reader’s) future financial stability—their money—, health, safety, and overall happiness.
Pages covering YMYL content are observed more strictly than non- YMYL content and is the subject of one of the latest major algorithm updates. In general, Google would prefer that an actual expert with formal credibility is the one behind a YMYL content. This will obviously mean a lot to your SEO if you are in a YMYL niche, such as:
Finance: pretty obvious, the M in YMYL. Investments information, retirement planning, loans, insurances, banking-related content, etc.
Shopping: probably the most controversial, content related to research or purchase of online products/services, especially eCommerce sites and sites that involve transferring money online
Important News: news about international events, politics, science, technology, and global business are considered YMYL, but lifestyle news including sports and entertainment are not considered YMYL
Government and Law: such as information about voting, adoption, creating a will, child custody, government agencies, etc.
Health: and safety, information about hospitals, drugs, emergency, how dangerous a particular activity is, medical issues, etc.
Groups of people: information related to race/ethnic, religion, age, nationality, gender identity, etc.
Other: fitness/nutrition, job-finding, college information, housing information, etc.
Simply put, if you are in the YMYL niche and are mainly publishing YMYL content, you have to pay extra attention to building and presenting your credibility, and some niches (i.e. civics information) are more difficult than the others.
So, E-A-T and YMYL are the two most important factors in determining the quality of the sources of your backlinks.
Dofollow VS Nofollow Links
Above, we have discussed how an inbound link should act as a vote of confidence. However, the site giving the link might “bypass” this voting function, by turning this link into a “Nofollow” link.
This is done by adding rel=”nofollow” HTML tag to the hyperlink code, for example:
A backlink without a rel=”nofollow” tag, on the other hand, is deemed as a Dofollow link, and it’s very important to note that only Dofollow links have value in SEO.
On the other hand, in some cases, you might also want to use Nofollow links to maintain a trustworthy internal linking structure. For example, in content discussing link building practices like this, you might link to a site using black hat link building practice as an example, but in this case, you can use Nofollow tag to link to this site without telling Google that you trust this offending site.
So, Do We Only Need Dofollow Links?
First, it’s important to note that backlinks from popular sites tend to always be Nofollow, such as inbound links from Medium, Reddit, Wikipedia, Quora, Twitch, and so on. Also, links coming from these sources tend to be Nofollow:
Links from a forum post (or other platforms allowing user-generated content)
All major social media platforms
Certain news sites and blogs
All paid links should be Nofollow, according to Google’s guidelines (or you might get penalized)
Links from these sites can still provide value to your business in the form of valuable traffic —although might not directly provide value to your SEO results—. For example, a link to your website from your own Instagram account is a common and effective practice to bring traffic to your site.
It’s generally wise to maintain a good balance between Dofollow and Nofollow links on your backlinks profile (more on this later), but when the Nofollow link is coming from a source where a Dofollow link is possible, you should always pursue it.
For example, if you get linked by a relevant third-party site in your industry, but the link is Nofollow, you might want to reach out to this site’s webmaster and pursue a Dofollow link (and build a relationship in the process).
Your Backlinks Profile
In general, your backlinks profile—or just “link profile” —, is an analysis or assessment of all the inbound links coming to your site, considering factors like:
The total quantity of links coming to your site
The quality of each link (based on the factors discussed above)
Diversity of backlinks sources (i.e. if a site links to you 10 times or 10 websites are linking to your site individually).
Various SEO tools (like Ahrefs, SEMRush, and Moz Pro) offer features to analyze your site’s backlinks profile.
In general, here are several considerations in maintaining a healthy backlinks profile:
Paid/purchased links are a big no
All search engines and especially Google and Bing absolutely despise paid links, and they are getting better at detecting these frauds. When you are caught with buying and selling backlinks, you will be penalized right away. At the very least, the penalized site will drop in ranking significantly, and in severe cases, the site might be permanently banned (as in, can’t rank at all).
Avoid excessive link exchanges
Working together with your business partners and linking to each other’s sites are pretty normal, and should be okay when these are done naturally—that is, you are linking using proper content and the anchor text is relevant for the external link, and vice versa.—
If, on the other hand, the practice is done excessively, it can get you penalized. How many is too many, then? In general, if the links are natural and relevant to the content, the quantity shouldn’t really matter. It will, however, mean that you’ll need to put at least some content development efforts for this link exchange purpose.
Low-quality directory links and private blog networks will get you penalized
These two used to be fairly popular grey-hat (or probably black-hat) tactics. In general, these sites (used to) allow you to pay for semi-legitimate links. Some were successful, some weren’t but in most cases, the site will get caught sooner than later.
In short, to have a healthy backlinks profile, it’s necessary to maintain an honest practice in getting your inbound links, as we will discuss in the next section.
Building High-Quality Backlinks
While there can be various different approaches in building backlinks, there are two main principles we should always hold on to:
1. It’s first and foremost, about the quality of your content
Really good content will always get links, period. That is, after all, the purpose of backlinks or inbound links as the online vote of confidence.
We shouldn’t really overthink it, and on the other hand, there’s no shortcut around this principle. That is, no amount of link building tactics and efforts can help low-quality, thin, and irrelevant content. Link-building tactics will only amplify the performance of an already performing content.
2. Your link building tactics should always align with your objectives/goals
Different content might—and should—has a unique objective, which will be related to the audience’s search intent.
That is, if your content is designed to fulfill informational intent, then you should mainly aim to get backlinks from sites that can support this content’s credibility as an informational source.
With those two principles being said, here are some examples of effective link building tactics in 2020 and onwards:
Healthy relationships as your link-building ecosystem
One of the best and the most effective ways to get high-quality inbound links consistently is to have business partners, media, and even loyal customers that you work with regularly. This way, we have a healthy “link-exchange” ecosystem where you can get a consistent, natural, and high-quality source of backlinks.
This approach, however, will require both parties to actually produce relevant and high-quality content that can link to the other’s site naturally, and it will require at least a little bit of time and effort for each backlink.
Outsource to an SEO expert
As an SEO expert/agency typically has relationships with high-authority sites and publishers and can publish content on these publishers as guest posts (technically). An expert can help get backlinks to your (the client’s) pages by using the following approach:
Publishing a pair of content: one content for your site (your content), and another content to publish on a high-quality site as a guest post. The SEO agency can develop both of these content pieces, or your content creator team (if any) can work on them. There can be various approaches to do this, but the principle remains the same
The “guest post” will be the key to this link building approach. It has to relate well with the target content. The placement for the backlinks (as well as the anchor text) should be thoroughly planned.
This will create a (mostly) win-win situation, the publishing site gets high-quality content from you (or the SEO agency), while you get a Dofollow, highly-optimized link.
Timing is important. On average it can take 2 to 5 weeks after the publication of the “target” article to get one published backlink.
This is arguably the most effective and safest approach to build high-quality backlinks and you can hire an SEO expert if you need help with acquiring new links.
Consistent publication of high-quality content
We have addressed the fact that the quality of your content is the key to generating backlinks.
That is, we have to consistently—both in quantity and quality—publish relevant and valuable content. Maintain a regular schedule to update your blog, YouTube channel, or any other platforms, but also maintain quality.
Remember, however, that you should avoid delivering low-quality content just for the sake of regular publication. Google is strongly against this practice and you might get your site penalized.
Publish link “hook”
We tend to link to another site when they provide useful data or information—as a “citation” in our content—, or when they provide unique resources (i.e. unique infographic, original research report, etc.).
So, if we want to get more links, we can also publish high-quality content that includes unique and relevant data/information, such as:
Something really unique or communicated from a unique angle
Emotionally engaging piece (great story, great photo, etc.)
Useful data/information (research report, case study, etc.)
In-depth “resource” content
We call this type of content pieces as “link hooks”, and can be an effective approach to attract a lot of inbound links to the specific page. The more specific you can create these “hooks”, generally, the better, although broader resource pages that can target various different websites can also be useful.
Sometimes—a lot of times, even—, all it takes to get a backlink is to simply send an outreach email and ask for one.
However, since we can imagine a popular, high-quality, authoritative site’s webmaster can get hundreds if not thousands of emails every single day, a custom, genuine, and personal outreach email is necessary to capture their attention.
Here are some important principles in attempting an authentic, personalized outreach:
Keep it short and to the point, any indication that it is a spammy email, and you will be discarded immediately
Let them know how you can provide value in the opening section of your email outreach. For example, let them know when they have a broken link on their site, and how your content can be relevant to replace this broken link
If you can mention something really personal (i.e. you both went to the same school, mention the person’s current project, etc.) without being creepy, you can create immediate connection
Another approach is to build a genuine relationship first, for example by asking an authentic, engaging question.
Link Building Best Practices
In general, your backlinks should always:
Come from high-quality, authoritative pages—as we have discussed further above, based on E-A-T principle—.
Earned links are always better. Avoid self-created, traded, and paid links.
Aim to get high-quality links “slowly” but consistently, rather than creating links in bulk. It’s better to get 1 high-quality backlink every month for a year rather than 12 links at one time and never grown again.
The links must come from sites that belong in your niche/industry, or at least topically relevant to your content. For example, if you are a digital marketing site with digital marketing content, it wouldn’t make sense to get a backlink from a site discussing football.
Remember that the natural purpose of backlinks is to bring relevant traffic to your website, and not only as a ranking factor for the search engine. Thus, links should be earned and on the other hand, strategically given, not just randomly generated for ranking purposes.
Backlinks—or inbound links—have been and still are the most important factors in determining your site’s ranking on the SERP (Search Engine Results Page). It’s true, however, that Google’s—and the other search engines’ — algorithms regarding inbound links have significantly changed over the years.
Nowadays, the quality of backlinks is more important than quantity, and getting links from authoritative sites can be easier said than done. The main principle, however, remains the same: if your content is good, you will always get linked in one way or another, sooner or later. Focus on consistently publishing high-quality content, and the backlinks will come.
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