There always seems to be so much confusion over link building when it comes to SEO. Is link building dead? Should you continue with this SEO tactic? Will it hurt your SEO?
I'm here to clear up the confusion to help you build a strong link profile.
In the not too distant past, Google's Penguin and Panda made it very clear that low-value and irrelevant links would no longer be effective in boosting a website's search engine performance.
Google needed to clean up the noise all SEOs were creating. Matt Cutts was their answer. Google and Cutts did a great job getting all of us to frantically disavow our links and bow down to them. Not cool.
Expert tip: If you didn't get a message in Search Console, you should NOT disavow.
Link building absolutely works, and it's one of the foundations of any successful SEO strategy. This is 100% fact.
It's simply the approach to building effective inbound links that have changed over the years.
Quality trumps quantity and the inherent value of a link has become more important than ever.
As search engines become smarter and more sophisticated, high-quality links will continue to pave the way to the best content on the web. This includes links from social signals, authority sites, and other resources.
But there's a catch. Search engines look for links that are relevant and trustworthy and are judging a website's link profile according to its overall diversity.
Let me explain.
Trust is Key with Link Building
The first component of a high-quality link profile is the trust factor. Is the page trustworthy?
The value of a link has a direct proportion to its trust. Most people refer to this trust as "authority".
In other words, if you have a ton of links from low-quality domains or websites you are likely to experience poor rankings, maybe even a Google penalty.
Unless you're already a trusted or authority site. Then the negative links really don't matter as much. Larger sites tend to get more easily caught up in Google Panda issues.
Large trusted sites are mostly exempt from the rules. They have a massive link profile from others linking to them, which builds their trust and brand. Nevertheless, both large sites and small business needs to understand that trust is very important.
Search engines understand what a quality website looks like. One of the "trust" factors is based on the links pointing to your website.
Think about it. Would an authority website like Huffington Post or Forbes link to a page on your website if your content was bad? Probably not.
Brian Dean does a great job of going over Google Trust, take a look at that post to learn more.
However, can you pay contributors on authority sites for links? Yes. Should you? Absolutely.
Building "press" is nothing new. Link building is the digital press your website needs from trusted sites for increased rankings, and ultimately more business.
Let me quickly say that creating exceptional content is a much better way. When combined with a good promotion strategy using outreach, great links will eventually come on their own through "link earning".
So, how do you determine the trust or authority of a website? Google PageRank used to be the standard, but that was completely shut down a few months back. Quite honestly, it has been irrelevant for a few years.
Moz's Page Authority (PA) and Domain Authority (DA) are the defacto standard these days for determining authority. You can use our SEO Auditor to get a quick snapshot of PA/DA.
The higher the numbers, typically the better. Not always, as I'll show later in the SEMRush section.
Relevance of the Website and Topic
Relevance when it comes to link building is very easy to understand.
Is the site you're linking to or getting a link from, in the same industry as you? Most of the links should be in the same vertical as you. But, it's ok if some are not in a certain context.
For example, attorneys should have links from law resource sites, and Avvo does a great job explaining this topical relevance idea.
[quote]Expert tip: Using an outbound link strategy helps with trust and relevance.[/quote]
Keep in mind that search engines can take this concept a step further into contextual relevance. Is the text surrounding your link relevant to your industry? This is important as well.
In keeping with the attorney example, if your link is from a financial site about retirement planning, and you're an estate attorney, the context will further support the relevance factor.
With relevance, it's not an exact science. Close enough is good, especially if the link has good trust signals.
Inbound or outbound links that further support the topical relevance are very important. The main category or niche of the website can vary.
Let's not forget that high-quality content should always be the cornerstone for your link-building efforts.
Diversity Looks Natural
Diversity is the third key component in a strong link profile. It is important to get links from a variety of different authority domains in order to strengthen your website's link profile.
If we consider each domain or website as an individual voter, it becomes clear that there is more value in ten votes from ten different domains than there is in ten votes from a single domain.
A strong link profile should consist of links from a number of different types of websites. This includes blogs and news sites, social media channels, review sites, and website directories.
However, if the bulk of your links come from only one type of site, say a directory, it doesn't look natural to the search engine bots. You need to diversify.
Having a link profile that consists of links from a variety of domains, and a wide range of different types of websites indicates that your link building strategies are natural.
- Directories - Links from directories do work. Some general directories such as Business.com are ok, but you really want to find directories that serve your industry.
- Press Releases - This still works as well. Keep in mind that most links will be "nofollow" from PR sites, and that helps with diversification.
- Article Databases - These sites I would stay away from. If you used these types of sites in the past, don't worry about it.
- Blog Commenting - Yes, these are great and natural. It makes sense to have these for an active brand. Vary the link you use, sometimes to your LinkedIn profile, sometimes to your blog, usually to your homepage.
- Social Links - These types of links go way beyond the natural social profiles you must have with Twitter, Facebook, etc. Get creative and build links on Web 2.0 properties. Everything from Tumblr, to Github, to LiveJournal and 100's of others. Then use automation to streamline everything. Quora is phenomenal when done properly.
- Paid Links - All major brands pay for links. Just stay away from permanent placement type links, such as sidebar or footer links.
- Guest Blogs - This should be your primary channel for link building when starting off. You will eventually transition to creating that expert content on your own blog.
How to Start Link Building?
Ok, so now we understand the big three: trust, relevance, and diversity. Now what?
Like any professional, the first thing we need is the right tools for the job. There are many SEO tools you can use for link building, link prospecting, checking traffic, and keyword research.
These are the 3 primary tools I use with SEO and link building:
- Search Console - Used to check for any manual actions, crawl errors, sitemap, and much more.
- Ahrefs - In my opinion, the best tool to check link profiles.
- SEMRush - Used to check the traffic of your link prospect.
There are plenty of other great SEO tools, but these are my favorite and a must for paid tools.
Many SEOs are still stuck using Majestic for evaluating link profiles, but Ahrefs is far superior with their growing data sets.
Anchor Text in a Nutshell
Before we jump into the tools, we need to briefly discuss anchor text. I know, you must be thinking...it's 2016, and we're still discussing anchor text? Yes.
There is so much bad information on anchor text.
Should I only use branded keywords? What is the ratio of "money" keywords I should use?
[quote]Here's the secret: keep it natural![/quote]
You might be wondering, what's a "money" keyword.
If we rewind to the attorney example, branded anchor text would look like these variations:
<a href="http://www.abc-attorney.com">ABC Attorney</a> <a href="http://www.abc-attorney.com">ABC Attorney, LLC</a> <a href="http://www.abc-attorney.com">http://www.abc-attorney.com</a>
The last one is technically called a naked URL, but the idea is that branded anchor text flows with your company name and variations of it.
This also includes anchor text links using the owner or other team members (most typical with blog commenting).
Money keywords and anchor text are the ones you would like to rank for, such as:
<a href="http://www.abc-attorney.com">estate planning lawyer</a> <a href="http://www.abc-attorney.com">Chicago estate planning attorney</a>
We all know that the goal of SEO is to be found rank high in the search results.
A good understanding of anchor text is keyword research is very important. Don't skip this step.
So, how do we keep things natural when we're trying to build links? It's actually very simple.
Would it make sense if your social media sites had "money" anchor text? No, it would not. What about press releases? Again, not natural to have anything but branded anchors on both of these.
Now, what about guest posts? It would absolutely be natural to have anchor text that is NOT branded. After all, the writer should be linking to supporting research in their natural writing flow.
That's the trick. Match the anchor text distribution to the platform. There is no magic percentage of money to branded anchor text that you will read on other blogs.
Not 20%, not 5%, not 10%. Those are made-up distribution percentages by people that are just writing about theory and don't really know shit about link building properly.
And large brands? They can do whatever they want. The most important thing for large brands is to clean up their site structure, duplicate pages, have scheduled SEO audits, and respect the search engine's crawling process.
Search Console is Where You Start
Finally, we're on to the tools. First up is Google Search Console.
Formerly Google Webmaster Tools, you must have this platform set up optimally.
Check out this webmaster tools article on how to get started. Once set up, you can dive deeper into the various sections.
Before you start any link building, you need to make sure your site doesn't have a "manual action" against it.
Take a look at Search Appearance -> HTML Improvements and Search Traffic -> Manual Actions. Make sure you're all good there.
After that, go to Search Traffic -> Links to Your Site.
What does your current link profile look like? Do you have a lot of citations from sites like Yellow Pages and other similar websites?
Are you just starting your link building process? In that case, start with local SEO citations.
However, if you have links in this section already, do some stand out that you might not want anymore? If the links are of poor quality, you might want to try and get those links removed manually by reaching out to the site owners.
Understanding where you currently are is the first step into understanding where you want to go. Search Console is the best place to start.
Link Prospecting with Ahrefs
Finding good links can be extremely time-consuming, especially when you're first starting out. You already know the first place to build links is with local citations. The next best place is to, well, copy your competitor's links.
Ahrefs is the best tool to check link profiles, period. I do like Majestic for Trust Flow and Citation Flow, but feel that Ahref's Domain Rating and URL Rating are becoming MUCH better metrics. Majestic is old news.
Ok, so jump over to Ahrefs and enter your domain, then head over to "competing domains" as shown in this image:
Granted, these top domains might not be an option to fully go after their links, but if you dig deep within those profiles, some links will be very easy to obtain.
You can also go further down the competing domains list and get some smaller footprint domains, then obtaining links from those competitors becomes increasingly easier.
Just click on the little down-arrow next to the domain, then select "backlinks" to check what links they have.
Grabbing competitor links is just one option for link prospecting. You definitely want to use other methods, and make sure you know how to use search modifiers to find other opportunities.
Check out these excellent resources for other methods of link prospecting:
- A Guide to Link Prospecting
- The Power of Using Lists for Link Building
- The Definitive Link Prospecting Resource Guide
Above all, stay VERY organized with your process. This means using Google Spreadsheets, or just plain old Excel on your computer.
SEMRush is Gold!
SEMRush is my favorite SEO tool. Not only is it a critical component to your initial keyword research, but it is also a goldmine for evaluating link prospects.
Once you've completed your link prospecting using the methods I mentioned above, now what?
Your next step is to see if the domains are worthy, and this is primarily based on traffic to those domains. You don't want to take the time to get a link, only to find out it doesn't get any traffic or was slapped with a Google penalty.
SEMRush is where we go to get a high-level overview of the traffic. Let's look at some examples.
I found this domain for a client in the "business" category with a pretty Domain Authority of 46 - a good prospect, right? Wrong.
Look at that trend line over 6 months. First of all, it has no real traffic to begin with, and 2nd, a downward trend line is not good. They may have some on-page SEO issues that need fixing or who knows. Either way, it's not a good prospect.
It's worth noting, just because a website has a high DA, that doesn't give us the full picture. High DA does not always equal high traffic.
Let's look at another example.
Also found the above domain through link prospecting for the same client. Look at that traffic, wow! What do you think the DA on this domain is? 70? 60?
It's actually lower than our first example, currently at 44.
Do you see why SEMRush is absolutely critical to your SEO toolset arsenal? You must check all your link prospects, and there's no better place than SEMRush.
Link building still remains the primary cornerstone of any successful SEO strategy. I actually did leave one of the best SEO tools off my list - it's that thing between your ears! Just kidding.
Be creative. Experiment with your link building. Don't be scared of Google. But also, don't be careless either.
If you have other tools or resources that are indispensable when link building, please let me know, and I could see about incorporating them into this post.
If you have other strategies or any comments at all, I would love to see you start a discussion below.
Until next time, happy link building.