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Know the Basics of Link-Building to Boost Your SEO

Backlinks have a big impact on search engine rankings, according to 58% of SEO pros surveyed for uSERP’s The State of Backlinks in 2021 report.

Many content marketers, though, find link-building to be a challenging task. If you fall into that category or are just looking for a refresher on legitimate link-building tactics, I’ve got you covered.

58% of #SEO pros say backlinks have a big impact on search engine rankings, according to @userp_io’s State of Backlinks in 2021 report via @hrollins @CMIContent. Share on X

3 types of links

First, let’s look at the three categories of legitimate links:

  • Backlink: An external website links back to one of your content assets (i.e., blog post, infographic) or your general site.
  • Internal link: One page on your site includes a link to another page on your site. (Internal links are not as valuable as external links, but they help Google understand your site’s structure, which can be helpful for SEO. They also are crucial for on-site engagement and decreased bounce rates.)
  • External link: A page on your site includes a link to a relevant third-party site. (In the fledgling years of backlinking, relevancy didn’t matter, but it does now.) Your external links count as backlinks for third-party sites.
Internal links are not as valuable as external links, but they help @Google understand your site’s structure, which can be helpful for #SEO, says @hrollins @CMIContent. Share on X

Follow vs. no-follow

Not all links are created equal. Just like internal and external links have different effects, follow and no-follow links connect to external content but are wildly different in terms of what they do for your SEO. Exposure Ninja breaks down the difference beautifully:

  • Follow links are legitimate external or internal links to your website – exactly what you want in your backlinking efforts.
  • No-follow links are applied on the back end with the code, rel=“nofollow”. You can see it in the linking URL. That little piece of code tells search engines not to follow the link – meaning that the linked page won’t receive any direct benefits from this link.
Your site doesn’t receive direct #SEO benefits from no-follow links, says @ExposureNinja via @hrollins @CMIContent. Share on X

Why would a website use no-follow links? Exposure Ninja explains some of the reasons:

  • Untrusted content: Most no-follow links are designed to protect the publishing website. For example, it’s common practice on sites where the comments section allows users to post links because those links could connect to spammy or abusive content, which the site doesn’t support.
  • Links that don’t need to be crawled: As Google crawls (indexes) your site, it evaluates the follow links. If your site includes links to pages that have nothing to do with search (think password-protected sections), you don’t want Google to waste its limited time crawling those pages. A no-follow is important to include.
  • Paid links: Google and other search engines go a long way to ensure that SEO isn’t a pay-to-play game. Thus, if a site is paid to include a link, the link should be classified as no-follow. (I go into more detail next.)

Know the differences among paid strategies

Paying for links can be a shady SEO technique. It can also be a good way to earn quality links while generating awareness and widening your brand’s exposure. How do you know the difference?

Let’s walk through three options. Think of them like a traffic light – red/stop (direct purchase), yellow/caution (linking services), and green/go (SEO agencies).

Direct purchase

The no. 1 reason to never buy a backlink directly? If Google determines it’s a paid link, it will penalize your site’s ranking. Those backlinks will have almost no credibility in the eyes of search engines.

If @Google determines you paid for a backlink, it will penalize your site’s ranking, says @hrollins @CMIContent. Share on X

Beware of service providers and websites that offer (and guarantee) cheap links. These “link farms” send your link to as many sites, most of them irrelevant. Not sure if it’s a link farm? If you’re wondering why a link is relevant on a site, chances are Google is too. It may be tempting to go cheap and quick, but it’s just not worth the risk.

 Linking services

Plenty of third-party linking services can handle your backlinking needs. However, their legitimacy is up for debate. Many are rumored to be private blog networks (PBN) – companies that pay a group of bloggers to include your link on their site, whether or not that link is relevant to their content.

As the experts at Guest Post put it, “(E)ven if 1% of (these links) come from legit sites, the other 99% being PBN links does nothing but hurt your results.” The takeaway? Vet any linking service carefully and ask plenty of questions about their tactics and the results you can expect.

SEO agencies

SEO agencies will perform all the functions that a linking service will promise, but legitimate firms add that extra bit of strategy. They analyze your website, work with you to define your goals, and determine the types of links needed to boost your overall Google rankings. They also can work with or for you to create the content to achieve those backlinks.

An SEO agency won’t sell you a certain number of links. They are far more focused on building your brand’s presence holistically using multiple respected techniques and key performance indicators to achieve success.

All agencies are not created equal. If you’re considering using an SEO agency, they should be able to explain exactly how they’re going to achieve the links you need. Then you can evaluate if they are legitimate link-building techniques. If they say anything about using their “database of contacts,” be wary and ask them to explain. Some less scrupulous agencies will claim to create their backlinks but farm out your product to one of the linking services mentioned above.

How to earn quality links

Now that you understand the different types of links and paid options to get them, it’s time to think about what content and sites will get you those quality backlinks. The best backlinks come from reputable, relevant publications and websites.

Here are some of the elements that earn those links from the SEO experts at my agency, 10x digital:

Create quality content

One of the biggest mistakes we see clients make is link-building backward. They focus on the link rather than the content that’s linked to. Your content should be meaningful and valuable to drive views, impressions, engagement, and, most importantly, conversions because your business is nothing without catering to its customer. To do this, you first should:

  • Define your target audience and outline topics that they are interested in (and searching for.)
  • Perform market research. Look at your industry. What are the buzzwords? What are the keywords where you want your site to appear in search results?
  • Research competitor’s content: Look for gaps. What topics could you explore that they haven’t? If you have access to an SEO tool such as Semrush or Ahrefs, now is the time to use it. Check their website’s backlink profile and dwell times to help optimize yours.
One of the biggest mistakes we see clients make is link-building backward, says @hrollins @CMIContent. Share on X

With this new information, focus on building a mix of relevant ideas and content types to maximize your distribution potential.

Write guest posts

Guest posting is a tried-and-true tactic for legitimate link-building. The trick is to create and offer content that’s truly valuable to the third-party blog. Keep your request or pitch for a guest blog post short and snappy – the person at the other end of the email should know what you want to write about – and how it will resonate with their audience – within seconds.

This step also helps you build relationships with other websites and expand your professional network.

Note: Not all sites, particularly mainstream media publishers, include backlinks. If backlinks are your primary reason for guest blogging, read through the contributor guidelines and publishing parameters to see if backlinks are allowed before you ever reach out.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Guest Blogging: A Step-by-Step Guide

Craft unique case studies

Facts and statistics are great content to earn legitimate backlinks – hard data sets your content apart. Telling fact-focused case studies can be as good as gold when it comes to shares and links.

The best case studies outline a project, product, or client win accompanied by hard facts and data. You know that your product improved your client’s efficiency, but by what percentage? How many new products did they sell as a result of your input? These are the things that will make your content stand out.

Use infographics

Infographics and other graphic visualizations also are great ways to achieve backlinks. They’re likely to attract more interest from audiences because people are always looking for valuable information that’s easy to scan.

The real beauty of an infographic is its shareability. Publish it once to your blog, then share it on social media and invite other sites to publish it (with a link to the original.) You can even add links within the infographics that go to other pages on your site.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: 7 Ideas to Spark Great Infographics

Start the chain

Legitimate link-building may be one of the trickiest parts of SEO. It requires knowing the types of links, the investment opportunities (good and bad), and most importantly, the content that will shine in the eyes of searchers (and Google.) But doing that SEO will give you some of the highest returns – if you play your links right.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used). 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute