Link building is an often overlooked aspect of search engine optimization that is vital for search results rankings.
As one of the biggest factors considered in Google’s algorithm, you want to ensure building high-quality, relevant backlinks from other websites is part of your site’s SEO strategy.
Read our ultimate guide to learn about linkbuilding, the top tactics used in 2021 to drive backlinks to your site, and how to consistently generate them at scale.
Having other websites link to yours — a quick hyperlink from one site to another — is an important part of any good SEO plan. Most people believe that it is one of the most difficult aspects of getting pages to rank on Google, but also one of the most satisfying when done correctly.
Link building is when website A links to website B; this sends a clear signal to Google's algorithm that the latter needs to rank higher for related keywords. These are known as inbound links, backlinks, external links, or simply links.
Link building is one of the biggest ranking factors considered in Google’s algorithm. It requires time and resources for building links. That is a fact that cannot be avoided.
It's also difficult to get right, but when it’s done correctly, the sites that consistently implement strategies to create stronger links than their rivals usually see substantial increases in organic traffic and sales.
That is why backlinks are so critical and why they should take up a significant portion of your SEO budget.
However, the following are the key reasons why you should make link building a priority as an SEO:
You can't afford to neglect link building, and you will need to make sure you're executing techniques that will give you a competitive edge.
Looking to learn more about search engine optimization? Read our SEO beginner’s guide for everything you need to know about SEO and how to drive business results through search engines like Google and Bing.
Link building is more complicated than it seems, and not just in terms of the tactics that provide the greatest outcomes and effects.
When developing a link-building strategy, keep in mind that not every link is created equal, and that there are some main factors that contribute to long-term performance.
You shouldn't create links haphazardly.
That is to say, you must realize what a perfect link looks like and that the more work you put into obtaining the right links, the greater the effect they can have.
To help you understand what a great link profile looks like, here are some of the core components you can concentrate on that make up a great link building strategy.
Links on a website that are most likely to be clicked usually have the most context to offer Google and will have the greatest effect on rankings. PageRank is how Google calculates the worth of a backlink.
Contextual links, as opposed to links in the footer or sidebar, are usually better quality links and are essential to a good strategy.
Some links do not pass link value and won’t impact a site's rankings as a result.
Different HTML coding elements can be added to links, the most important of which to know are nofollow, supported, and user-generated content (UGC) links.
Links with the rel="nofollow" attribute indicate to Google that they should not be crawled and that they should not be associated with the two pages in terms of rating.
A connection with the rel="sponsored" attribute indicates the link placement has been paid for and shouldn't pass link value.
Rel="UGC" highlights links from user-generated material such as forums and tweets, suggesting that these links were not put editorially and could be manipulative.
When a link is referred to as a 'followed' link (or occasionally referred to as a 'dofollow' link - even if this is technically incorrect terminology), it ensures that no attributes preclude PageRank from being forwarded, and a great link profile should include a high percentage of these, as long as they come from high-quality sources.
Links can come from pages and content that are closely connected to the subject on your own blog, and this is another perfect example of making sure you're not just creating any links, but the right ones.
Remember that links were created to help users get from page A to page B on the site, so why would a link take you to anything that wasn't connected to the topic?
Doesn't seem right, does it? But, when it comes to linkbuilding, make sure to take this approach.
When prospecting for connection possibilities, a good way to get into this mentality is to ask yourself whether you would still try it if Google didn't exist or didn't use links as part of its algorithm.
If you said yes, that's normally whether it's from a topically relevant website where your audience browses online, or that you expect it to send quality referral traffic or help raise your brand's awareness or authority.
If you replied no, it's a safe bet that the connection isn't important to your industry.
Your link building profile should contain links from a wide variety of referencing domains rather than the same few over and over.
To maximize the number of specific linking domains, a good approach should often rely on strategies that will see a link building effort earn links from new domains that have never connected before.
According to Nick Eubanks, "many times when I see sites ranked with far lower authority, they seem to have a much better ratio of linking root domains than their rivals," having links from a larger number of specific domains will help a site rank in prominent positions.
The sitewide authority of a domain also influences the value of a backlink.
A link from a well-known website, such as Forbes or The Huffington Post, would have a much greater effect than a link from an unknown blogger.
These links are difficult to obtain, but they are well worth the effort.
You can use Ahrefs to determine the domain rating of a website, or Moz's Domain Authority metric to determine the quality of the website you're getting backlinks from.
Another factor to consider is where your link is placed on the page. The higher the placement on the page, the more SEO value is passed to your website.
The lower a link is on a page (in comparison to the other links), the less weight Google’s algorithm gives to that placement.
The text used to connect from one page to another is known as anchor text.
When adding a backlink to another business, you might use the company name, the article title, or maybe simply 'press here' or something similar.
However, since Google's algorithm uses anchor text to decide what a website is about, you want to make sure your anchor text is optimized, but natural-sounding to users.
Excessive use of optimized anchor text (using the main focus keywords or commercial terms) is a proven contributor to both manual behavior and algorithmic filters being implemented, according to Google's guidance.
Your link profile should have a normal combination of links with optimized anchor text, with no visible spikes to tip Google off on unnatural link building practices occurring.
Regardless of where your relation appears on a website, you should consider the following:
“Was this link inserted by an editor?”
To put it another way, did anyone contribute to your blog because they felt it was fantastic? If that's the case, you've found an editorial connection.
Or did you make a profile on a random website and connect to it? That isn't an editorial link.
As you would imagine, Google gives editorially positioned links a lot of weight compared to other types of backlinks that are generated for a website.
When building backlinks, you need to consider which page you’re trying to drive backlinks to.
A common mistake is to drive all backlinks to your homepage, which isn’t useful for Google and wastes link building authority that could be passed down to other high-priority pages.
You want to make sure that you’re driving backlinks to your main target pages on the site to improve keyword rankings. You also want to ensure that your internal linking structure is optimized so that link building juice is being evenly distributed across your site.
In the SEO industry, there are different shades of SEO: blackhat, whitehat and gray hat.
Simply put, white hat is SEO strategies that specifically adhere to Google's Webmaster Guidelines and take an ethical approach. It focuses heavily on optimizing for human audiences and is seen as a long-term strategy for achieving long-term search engine visibility.
Black hat SEO, on the other hand, employs tactics that break these rules and use deceptive techniques to boost a site's ranking, normally with the aim of gaining fast results.
Grey hat SEO is in the center, using strategies that are inherently deceptive and riskier than white hat, but aren't as blatant as black hat in terms of breaching Google's terms.
Google has a webspam unit whose main goal is to ensure that websites that use black hat techniques do not rank.
It's pretty easy to find black hat link building: if the links violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines, they're definitely black hat.
Whether you use black hat tactics or not, only you have the power to make the call. I personally do not suggest black hat link building because the cost does not equal the benefit in the long-term. However, it is entirely up to you.
Regardless of whether you're a white hat or black hat SEO, you should be aware of Google potentially penalizing your website and nuking your keyword rankings.
A few years ago Google announced the launch of the Penguin Update to its algorithm to catch unnatural link building and penalize websites that were caught using black hat link building techniques.
To avoid this, focus on white-hat link building tactics. There's proof that reducing exact match anchor text will help you stop Penguin. Avoiding shady links is the simplest way to avoid Penguin (regardless of anchor text).
There’s also manual penalties to consider.
In this case, someone at Google has imposed a manual punishment. In contrast to Penguin, Google will notify you through a Google Search Console notification.
No one knows how pages are targeted for manual penalties outside of Google. In my opinion, an algorithm detects a website that is possibly abusing Google’s webmaster guidelines.
They then send the site to a Google employee for a manual analysis. So having a spotless link building profile is the safest way to prevent a manual penalty.
You can also rebound from a manual penalty by disavowing links and submitting a reconsideration order for any unnatural backlinks that you’ve generated, if you’ve seen a major decline in organic traffic or received a manual penalty notice.
Now that we’ve covered the basics for what you should know about link building, we’ll dive into the top link building strategies that are used in 2021.
Surveys are a great way to find opinions from industry experts on a given topic and spin it into an interesting article that you can pitch.
The goal here is to find a unique angle on a topic, collect surveys that either validate or disprove your hypothesis, and share those findings with interested parties with the goal of driving backlinks to your website.
This might be an inherently obvious strategy, but you should aim to make sure that your content is 10x better than all of the other resources available on that topic.
By having the best resources available, you can outreach to interested prospects in the hopes that they will link to your resource.
The other goal with this approach is that your content will rank prominently on Google, which will drive natural backlinks from audiences that discover your content organically because they’re ranking on the first page of the search results.
Take a look at your competitor’s content: how many images do they have? Do they have tutorial videos on the subject? Infographics? If it’s a listicle, how many bullet points do they have?
Using that information, you want to one-up them in every way.
Broken link building is a tried and proven link-building technique that is simple to apply and can produce some fast results.
This technique entails locating relevant sites in your business that have broken outbound links and could link to your website instead. You may contact them to request that the broken links are replaced with a link to a related piece of material on your website.
Digital PR is a great way to drive backlinks to your website. By having interesting insights or relevant news about your business, you can leverage PR content to get journalists or magazines to repost your content and drive syndicated backlinks to your website.
In the same vein as digital PR, data journalism involves pulling data points to create interesting content or angles that you can then pitch to local journalists to write on.
Links from newspapers are a great source of domain authority for your website and Google places high value on journalistic websites.
Most companies are listed in the press or on other websites from time to time for a variety of reasons, some of which are normal and others which are the product of the PR team's efforts.
It's not unusual for this coverage to lack a backlink and just focus on the brand, but it's always easy to convert this into a link with little effort.
You can monitor for brand mentions on the internet and then reach out to those websites asking for a backlink to your own website. Most of the time, many publishers are happy to oblige and include a backlink as part of the brand mention in their content.
In 2021, guest posting is a fantastic way to earn links as long as it is done properly and you realize that it is not a tactic that will scale up dramatically.
Forget about links for a moment; getting your content featured on a related forum where you share insightful knowledge and experience is an excellent way to raise your domain authority. The fact that you will almost always get a backlink to confirm your brand identity is an added bonus.
A Google search using one of the different operators will turn up a slew of guest posting opportunities. Here's a real-life definition of "write for us."
Bear in mind that if you can quickly find opportunities to pitch guest posts to, your opponents can as well. As a result, whatever links you receive can not provide you with the strategic edge that other strategies can if your competitors are also guest posting to those websites you’re earning backlinks from.
Infographics are a convenient way to get links from top-tier press outlets; even basic 'how to...' infographics have the ability to quickly pick up a large amount of links.
Easy suggestion or opinion-led infographics (how-tos and listicles, etc.) are unlikely to have much of an impact on today's world, but that doesn't mean infographics aren't always useful.
Remember the following:
Remember how we said that link building should be based on strategies that give you great referral traffic and help you develop your brand as much as it should be about impacting your search rankings?
While this will only result in nofollow links, you can use Q&A sites such as Quora and Reddit to create links that send targeted traffic to your site. These links would also contribute to the diversification of your domain's link profile.
Participate in related forums on these channels and bring meaning wherever possible. It's not about jumping in and inserting a link right away, but rather about exchanging useful content and ideas to assist other users who have concerns.
If you're not keeping an eye on HARO (Help a Reporter Out) and the #journorequest hashtag on Twitter, you might be losing out on chances to get your client or company press attention (and links).
Journalists and content developers use these tools on a regular basis to identify outlets for their posts.
They're looking for companies like yours to contribute relevance and expertise to their content, and you can take advantage of this need / pain point.
From Monday to Friday, you will receive three emails from HARO, each containing categorized questions (or those just from a category you have requested to receive notifications for).
Send it over if you think you'll be able to have an excellent answer to the journalist request.
While not all of the responses can be used, it is a low-effort approach that can produce substantial results in terms of landing authority links. Make sure you're only responding to inquiries from individuals who will really benefit from your experience.
Journalists use the hashtag #journorequest on Twitter to find references in a similar manner to #journorequest.
Reciprocal links are another strategy illustrated in Google's description of link schemes, but only when done at scale.
It will not hurt you if you have the ability to connect to and send referral traffic to a partner in your business, and they will do the same in return.
Simply put, don't exchange links without first understanding relevance and meaning if it falls outside a business need or partnership.
You may have noted that blog comments and forum links are listed among the categories of links that Google prohibits.
This falls within a gray hat tactic that requires judgement before writing it off.
Don't leave meaningless blog comments with a lead back to your site; that's spam, much like leaving links in forum threads that don't add meaning.
However, you can also get traffic from well-thought-out and important blog comment sections and forum posts if you approach the technique as a way to bring relevance to conversations and then connect when it does.
When you create an immersive, collaborative tool or piece of content, you are basically making a strong connection with the story you’re trying to pitch.
Consider a journalist who mentions a useful tool but does not provide a link to it. Doesn't make any sense, does it? You will optimize links while minimizing brand mentions by making links an important part of the narrative for these interactive embed tools.
Expert round-ups, despite being an older tactic from a few years ago, can still be a perfect way to win links.
You'll need to gather a group of experts in your field (it's more like a reverse content round-up, where you're the one making the content) and ask them a series of questions, and transform it into an informative piece of content that combines industry leaders' perspectives and experiences.
If you've hit publish, notify anyone who contributed and pitch key headlines and ideas to the press and other related publishers.
Naturally, any of the experts who contributed will refer to it through their "as seen in the news" or related pages, and there are often fascinating angles and discussions that business publications enjoy.
Guest post links have their benefits for link building.
However, they have one huge flaw: they take a long time to compose!
Enter the world of podcasting. You just turn up and chat about what you know, rather than preparing, composing, and editing a guest article and you can gain a backlink with less time investment.
What's the better part?
Any subject can be covered as a podcast episode, making this a great method to implement at scale.
Link reclamation is an important part of link building. You want to preserve the links you’ve gained from websites, making it vital to ensure that backlinks haven’t been removed or aren’t broken on websites that were linking to you in the past.
Now that we’ve covered the top link building tactics to use in 2021, let’s run through which ones you should avoid at all costs.
All paying links are in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines unless they are tagged with the rel="nofollow" or rel="sponsored" attributes to avoid PageRank passing.
We've already discussed the dangers of paying links, which are also used as a laziness strategy, and we won't go through them again here.
However, paying links can also be used to create the brand and win referral traffic, which is what these strategies are designed for.
Let's presume you have a popular blogger in your industry who has created a name for themselves and attracts thousands of page views from your target audience every month.
It's doubtful that they'll connect to you for free (at least not at your request). Why would they do that? They've worked hard to build a following, and they're not going to give it up for free.
You might like to partner with influencers to publish a funded piece of content or blog post in this manner. In other words, in exchange for payment, they will feature and connect to your firm.
This doesn’t benefit you from a SEO perspective, but it could have the following benefits:
In Google's eyes, links received as a result of a product being offered to a reviewer are deemed as paid links or part of link schemes that can result in a manual penalty.
Although no money is exchanged, there is an indirect trade involving the product's valuation.
Gifting things to influencers, similar to endorsed blog posts, can be a perfect way to expose the brand to new audiences (but won’t result in SEO value for your website); if you’re engaging in this type of promotion, make sure the links have the rel="paid" attribute.
Another strategy that has been exploited is giving scholarships as a means to create links, and it is, in several respects, a compensated link building tactic.
It's as easy as bringing together a small scholarship fund (think $1,000+) and detailing the criteria and offering on a dedicated page on your website, then reaching out to colleges and universities that list existing scholarships and hope they link out.
It's common because it's a tried and tested way to get links from educational institutions and other non-traditional links, but it's also been exploited and overused in recent years.
This falls under the gray hat' category because, while you are not paying for a connection directly, it is the primary justification for establishing a scholarship fund.
If you don't overuse the strategy, it will also help you create some fantastic links.
Sponsoring local businesses or events is a fairly common tactic that is used to build links.
This is more of a gray hat tactic, so use this method with caution.
Simply make sure that the event or group you're endorsing aligns with your business, and you'll reap rewards beyond just a backlink. But, if you're just sponsoring to provide a link, you might consider whether your money can be better invested elsewhere, particularly if the links you'll get aren't topically aligned.
NoFollow link building is often found within blog comment sections with users trying to link back to their own websites.
NoFollow links pass no value to the destination website, so no SEO juice is passed along. It can also look spammy if you have a high percentage of NoFollow backlinks in relation to your DoFollow backlinks.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of poor link building practices, let’s dive into how to perform outreach to gain your backlinks.
When you find individuals in your industry (influencers, writers, authors, or webmasters) who may be interested in linking to you, and you reach out to them to develop a connection and explore ways for them to cover your great content, you are doing outreach for link building.
However, outreach may refer to a number of things.
It may be that you're reaching out to give exclusive interviews with your company's CEO, or to pitch guest post suggestions based on your new data-driven interactive PR initiative.
The method of identifying and engaging with possible prospects who could relate to you is known as outreach.
Below are several methods used in performing outreach and identifying the right prospects to target with your messaging.
Google is the best place to start when it comes to guest posting, link round-ups, and niche directories.
You won't need any gadgets, because you'll normally be able to find a slew of openings in a matter of minutes.
Using search operators allows you to get a list of qualified websites that you can outreach to and generate backlinks from.
Running a backlink analysis of your competitors is a perfect way to find out the links are helping your rivals domain authority scores. It’s also great because if they have a backlink, there's a decent chance you'll be able to get a link from the same site as well.
To find relevant websites, you’ll want to plug your target keyword or topic into Google.
Then you’ll grab the URLs from the first page of Google and use a link analysis tool, such as Ahrefs, to find all the backlinks for those URLs.
These are relevant websites that you can also target for your outreach.
Now that you have a list of qualified website prospects, you’ll now want to find their email address.
Hunter.io is a great tool for finding and scraping contact information on target websites.
VoilaNorbet is another option, where instead of a website URL, you enter a person’s name and the company in which they work, to find their contact information.
Scaling outreach is the wrong approach if you plan on sending generalized emails to a mass list of people.
Instead, you want to make sure that your email template is personalized to every single person you’re outreaching to, whether you’re including their names in the greet, calling out specific details in their content, etc…
Below are a few tools that you should be using to perform outreach and research the top prospects for your website to target.
Ahrefs is a fantastic tool for identifying qualified websites; finding link building opportunities through competitor gap analyses; topic ideation and more.
It’s an essential part of your tool kit that you shouldn’t overlook. You can also use it to perform content research to discover noteworthy content within your vertical.
Buzzstream is great for automating email outreach and keeping track of metrics such as email opens, clicks, responses, etc… in a single dashboard.
This makes it easy and manageable when you’re juggling hundreds or thousands of prospects you’re actively reaching out to and holding conversations with.
Pitchbox is a great solution for finding relevant prospects for given topics, either on a local or national level. A big focus of this tool is on Tier 1 and 2 prospects (newspapers and magazines), but can be used for finding websites and contact information for blog writers as well.
Like I mentioned earlier, Hunter.io is great for finding the contact information of target prospects for a given website.
To different people, the success of a link building campaign will mean different things.
It all boils down to the link building campaign’s objectives. However, it is vital that you comprehend the metrics that should be taken into consideration when setting these targets.
It's risky to rely only on the amount of backlinks created and you'll find the consistency suffers as a result.
Additionally, you should use competitor analytics to evaluate the linkbuilding delta between you and others, as well as to ensure that you are creating the right ties with relevant websites that will help you rank higher.
When it comes to metrics, though, you should think about using one or more of the following: