Even in 2024, Link building remains one of the biggest factors in SEO if you want to improve the search engine results of you webpage.
It’s one of those terms that can confuse and instil dread into the hearts of many an SEO. But despite all the changes the internet marketing landscape keeps throwing at us – link building is one of those disciplines, which has fundamentally stayed the same and yet remains one of the more challenging areas of SEO to master.
Since link building has been a “thing”, there have been plenty of tools to automate the process and to make it easier, but this will often produce lower quality results. So the best way, still, to get the best results is to have a solid manual link building process, and something we’ll explore in this post.
So, in order for you to learn, we’d better start at the beginning by explaining why it’s such a powerful digital market skill to have.
So links, or as they are more commonly known, hypertext links are a foundational element built into the markup language through which all webpages are built, called HTML. Its job is to allow anyone on the internet to go from one part of the internet to another through clicking (or tapping in the case of a mobile device) on that element. This could be in the form of a button, image or appropriately coded text.
It was one of the reasons why it was considered so revolutionary when its inventor (Sir) Tim Berners Lee introduced it as a way to share files between researchers who worked at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva in 1991.
The webpage he created then is still available to see as it’s now considered a historical document and also conveniently demonstrates a link in it’s most basic form – this is a link to the very first webpage
Two years later in April 1993, CERN announced that this technology dubbed “the world wide web” would be available free for anyone to use, and just like that, the internet was born.
Given the quick history lesson above you might be hard pressed in joining the dots to understand how these hyperlinks help your internet marketing efforts, but I will try to explain… bear with me.
The best analogy I can refer to is that links are like votes from other websites, to say your site is good, it’s really as simple as that. However, not all links are equal.
In the wild, these types of links are all over the internet, and are commonly used as a way to refer to another piece of content which is relevant in some way to the information, much like the link I created above when I referred to the first-ever web page – it allows you, the consumer, to make a little more sense of what I was trying to describe.
So, therefore, you can see that if you create valuable information on your site which someone thinks is good enough to link to, then they are saying, that piece of content is good, relevant and authoritative in their opinion, and effectively giving you a vote. But that is only part of the story.
The power of links came about when you add Google into the mix, as links are a large part of their algorithm. To understand this, we need to have another quick history lesson…
Back in the 1990s, Larry Page, one of the founders of Google was at Stanford University studying his PhD, he was interested in many things, one of which was how search engines worked at the time.
He was specifically interested in how to improve the quality of results a user received when they typed in a query.
Back then search engines such as excite, Alta vista, AOL, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo! worked on providing results based upon keywords taken from the metadata of a website. This left the search engines open to widespread abuse and was being manipulated by unscrupulous web developers who knew how to skew the results in their favour. Therefore, the quality of the results was at best vague and more often than not, irrelevant to the query you had typed in.
Larry Page thought that this isn’t how search engines should be, he believed that the results of a search should be the best quality possible and shouldn’t be open to as much manipulation.
He hooked up with a colleague at Stanford, Sergey Brin, a mathematician, and together they embarked on a way to change it.
Their response was an algorithm nicknamed “backrub”, this was the first algorithm of it’s kind and one which developed into the “page rank” algorithm, which went on to form the basis of their new venture.
In September 1998 they launched a new company called Google, which would literally go on to change the world.
The Page Rank(PR) algorithm was designed to change the way search engines processed information and how it categorised information on the internet.
Previously, information on the internet wasn’t organised and categorised, therefore you didn’t know how authoritative, or even how trustworthy, the information you were seeing in the results actually was.
What Googles algorithm did was create a simple hierarchy of the internet based on the how websites linked to one another, which could determine the authority of a webpage on a scale of 10 to 0, with PR 10 being the highest authority and most trustworthy, by contrast, PR 0 showed that the web page had absolutely no authority or trust whatsoever.
What this allowed Google to do was to improve the quality of its results on its search engine based upon how authoritative and trustworthy the information was as determined by a mathematical algorithm, largely based on which other websites linked to it (in other words how many quality votes it receives.)
Even though the algorithm has changed significantly over the years and Page Rank metric is no longer publicly shared by Google, the algorithm and the search results which result from it still has a significant links bias to it. Though now the algorithm is largely dynamic and built around AI and automated learning technologies, that being said, they still find it difficult ( at the time of writing) to find another metric as reliable as links to determine a website’s overall authority and trustworthiness.
So now we understand a little about the genesis of links and link builidng we can now move on to explore some of the practical techniques.
The first thing I would probably preface this with is that natural link building is always preferable, that is where you produce quality content consistently and build up an audience who are more likely to share and link to that content.
Though if you want to amplify your efforts, you can use the following as guidance as to how to develop that reach.
With content, the ideal outcome is to get it consumed and to be seen by more people, which can often prove difficult if you do not have the reach of a noted celebrity. There are many things you can do to help promote that content, one of which is to build a powerful backlink from an authoritative source.
But to do this, its often not as straight forward as just letting your content sit there on a webpage waiting to be discovered as some would have you think. You have to promote it, but do so strategically.
You need to identify those sites who are the most powerful and will provide that added coverage, however, if you are just starting out, It’s best to keep it simple stupid at first.
With experience, more powerful links will be acquired, but at the start, some of the links you win are not going be the best, but you will learn a great deal in the process.
To get more powerful links, authority is still based upon the page rank principle and the hierarchy of the internet, so, if one website, which is more authoritative than yours, links back to your site, then some of that power will trickle to your page, that is the simplest way of looking at it.
However, you also have to match that with a concept called topical relevance, which as you can probably guess is how relevant the corresponding page is to your content? This is important because it makes more sense that websites are going to link to you when they are in a similar vertical or relevant, rather than a backlink from a random website.
One small side-note that perhaps I should mention here is what we’re trying to do in building links is to build trust, authority and relevance to our own website.
While that might look like its gaming Google, it’s not, the way I like to think of it is that we are naturally promoting our content, just as you would promote it on social media or any other channel, only this way we are reaching out to those who might be interested in a more targeted way.
You don’t need to ask for the link per se, just that the recipient might be interested in sharing it with there own audience.
It is important to underline that what makes this achievable is the quality of your own content too. Someone linking to your site is only going to do so if it enhances their own content or reputation in some way, no one in their right mind will link to poor or low-quality content.
If the quality of your content is good enough, and you promote it in the right ways, you will attract the attention of other website owners whose subject matters are aligned with yours, this is how you grow the power of your website naturally.
And even though you can’t really control who links to your site, it’s important as much as possible to ensure that the link profile remains clean, high quality, but natural as far as possible.
If it looks off, it may set off a red flag in the algorithm to say you are trying to manipulate your rankings too much by artificially acquiring links for rankings as opposed to for editorial reasons, this is the inherent risk in such a pursuit.
One of the more common questioned I get asked is this.
A lot of people who embark on a link building campaigns will be hit by this barrier at some point. There are billions of websites out there and millions are being launched daily, so there are no limits to how many links you can get theoretically, but I accept that is an unhelpful answer when you’re just starting out.
Obviously, not all those websites out there are going to be suitable and relevant to your industry, so I would typically start the most obvious.
Firstly, social links may not be the most powerful, but they are worth having. Even if you don’t use social media, which, if you’re serious about marketing your business online, you should be. But even on those channels which you don’t post to, it’s worth just having an account just so you can fill in the bio and have a link back.
As mentioned, it’s not going to be too powerful, but what this demonstrates to Google and the other search engines is that you’re a real bona fide entity.
This is important, as Google is looking at trust signals related to your business, and if you are like most other businesses, they all have social media accounts, so it’s important to have that social foundation, at the very least, even if you use the platforms or not.
Then look at your industry, if it’s like most, there will be lots of bodies and associations which are relevant that you may already be a member of, check their website to see if your business is featured and if they have included a link back from that site, if not, reach out to them ask, as member if they would refer to your website in the bio they provide about your business.
If you understand Html, you can even send them the code with a hyperlink included back to your home page, so all they need to do is copy and paste that into the page.
At this point, I want to point out that it’s probably not the done thing to ask straight out for a link, as the person you’re contacting may not know what you’re talking about, and those who do, know the value of a backlink and may ignore the request and disregard it as span, especially if you’re not known so well, so we have to think of strategically about how to request one without being too obvious.
Once you have done this, we can then go beyond the obvious, and look at other low hanging fruit. This is the time to get a little creative and examine just what content is on your site. What is the subject matter or industry and then hunt out another site which has similar content?
Remember though, people are only going to link to your site if the content has some value, so look at the type of content you and your team have produced and or what you can produce which could be of value to your audience and that of other similar sites. Be critical and consider if it’s the best it can be, and If you’re objective, ask yourself if anybody other than your colleagues would find it interesting and read it.
If it’s passed the sniff test, then you can think about who would be interested in reading it also, perhaps it’s a case study of a client you’ve worked with, surely they would be interested in someone talking about them online?
Reach out to them and tell them they have been featured on your website and perhaps they would like to promote the piece themselves or post about it on social media or even refer to it on their own website.
Now remember what i said earlier about being subtle, in the above scenario, you’re not asking for anything outright, you’re giving them something they would be interested in knowing about, you’re not asking for anything, this is just being strategic.
Now here’s where a little psychology starts coming into play, it’s called reciprocity, and it basically means that someone may reciprocate in kind if you do something for them. Ideally, it could be in the form of a backlink, but what you might get is the next best thing, maybe a post on their social media channels or promote it some other way.
The point is, that it’s not always going to result in what you want, but what you’re doing is using relevant content, which is interesting to other people, and leveraging that to be seen by a bigger audience. In this case, you’re potentially getting in front of a clients audience who might be a larger audience than the one you have and therefore more people potentially becoming aware of you.
If you do enough of this type of promotion and have enough of this type of content, you will start to get the links you wanted.
OK, so you’re still interested in wanting to do some link building, which is great!, So obviously you’d be right in asking the question where do I start?
The first thing I would suggest is to have a goal, what is it you want to achieve with your campaign? if you’re just starting out, it might be worth just having very simple objectives and to make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-specific).
The key here is to build some experience, and learn from doing it, so you could start with something simple such as building your first link in one week, this will allow you to achieve your objective without too much pressure and perhaps will give you the confidence to go further on the next campaign.
It will also make you think about your process, which is half the battle, if you can develop a standard operation procedure it will allow you to be more efficient, and also if you get proficient at it, you can use that procedure as a way to train others.
The next thing you have to consider is what assets have you on your website already which might be considered as interesting enough to link to?
If there is such a piece or multiple pieces of content, then great! if not, do you have the resources to create such a piece? This content could be anything such as an article, infographic, a case study, video – the only thing is it needs to be original and high value that someone other then your parents would be interested in reading.
You don’t have to produce it yourself if you don’ have those skills, instead, identify someone who has, maybe in your business or someone you know. Otherwise, the internet is full of freelancers who will produce content – just be careful who you choose and make sure you check out their work and the reviews they have.
The next thing you should consider is finding other sites who want to link to you. If you’ve read above, I mentioned a couple of places you can start and could be considered as low hanging fruit. Examples of this would be case studies you have on your website or bodies or associations your company are members of who might be willing to give a link.
One of the most powerful ways is guest posting, this is the process of reaching out to other site owners and offering a value exchange, typically this is content you produce in exchange for a link.
Guest posting is a really popular tactic and some agencies do it at an industrial scale, but that is not to say you can’t do it yourself to pick a few extra links now and again. If you don’t know who to reach out to, then there are several ways of doing it. one of the most basic ways is to use keywords together with search operators to find suitable websites on Google.
You may not know it, but Google have some really powerful features built into their search bar to help users get more accurate search results, these are called advanced search operators and they work in the same way as a normal search query, just more specific.
In contrast to a normal search which results in a list google thinks you want to see based on the key phrase, search operators allow you to narrow that down.
I am not going to go over an exhaustive list of operators, but here’s a good resource from Google if you want to know more about advanced search operators.
One of the simplest yet most powerful ways to use a search operator in this instance is to make use of quotation marks, which to google say they you wish to specific about the string of words you wrap within those. A lot of similar posts on other sites about link building would recommend using such queries as “keyword” + “write for us” as your operator, which return a list of sites in a niche who accept guest posts.
To us though that is a bit of a red herring, as those sites who come up in the results are looking to be targeted by such a term and are not necessarily going to be authorities in your vertical.
Remember, its not a numbers game, it’s a quality game.
If you’re smarter, you could make a small change to the operator to “keyword” + “blog” or “keyword” + “books” These are more likely to get results for authorities in your vertical and may be looking for other contributors.
The thing which goes a long way with doing this type of outreach is that you’re building real relationships, not just sending out random emails in order to get a link.
It’s likely that if you can connect with another authority in your space, they may have a network to which they can introduce you to which might lead to something bigger, you just don’t know where these things lead.
In agency land, when you work with clients, we can do this at much greater scale, and we can go into more depth in regards to the metrics target websites have and the likely quality of the site you’re reaching out to.
As we have paying clients who are expecting results, we have to do it properly and look at the data, but if you’re just doing a little outreach for your own business, then starting off with a basic strategy is the best way to learn and develop the skill through experience as we have down the years.
This is the best way we have found to learn, by coming up against roadblocks and learning how to get over them. But if you do want to look at the metrics of the targets you’re reaching out to, then you can always use free tools such as moz explorer tool.
Take note of the domain authority of the site, this gives you an indication of the power of the domain you are asking for a link from. Anything above DA 30 is regarded as being worth the effort, but unless you have some exceptional content, it will be difficult to get anything from a site with a DA greater than DA70. But if you are just starting out and what to get an easier backlink, then DA 20 is OK too.
I half answered this question above where you can use a free tool to assess the power of a domain you’re reaching out to, however, as with everything, the devil is in the detail.
When assessing the power of the targets site, it’s more than the metrics, why, because metrics can always be manipulated, and so even if a domain looks on the face of it to be powerful, it may have got there through spammy tactics which can only really be determined through the eyes of an experienced SEO, and a few other tools such as AHrefs for example, which has become an industry-standard over the past number of years.
One other way to tell if there is anything suspicious about the target site, is your own sniff test. Using your own eyeballs to check out a site is often one of the best ways to see if the website is bona fide.
if you examine the site itself, you can get a sense that the website and the content on it is high quality, does the site look as if it’s genuine and do you recognise anyone else from your industry if you are knowledgeable in this field? If you can do this and it looks fine and the metrics are on point, then it might well be a good target for you.
overtime if you do this on a regular basis you will get a better sense of it and quicker at doing this sort of thing and increase the power and improve the reach of your site in the process.
This is the $64,000 question, the short answer is it depends, and that because unfortunately, it boils down to a number of factors. However, the biggest factor is how competitive your vertical is and which keywords you are trying to rank for if that is indeed your objective, which it does have to be all the time.
If you’re just starting out and you are looking for results, don’t fall into the trap of many other newbies and try to rank for a random keyword which you think would be good to be number one in Google. Not only could that be a very competitive term, it may not even convert anyone into engaging with your brand.
Instead, it’s best to go for terms which don’t have the competition. These are terms which don’t normally have a great deal of volume either, but they are easier to rank for.
If you can rank for a number of these low competition terms, over time it will accumulate into quite a bit of traffic potentially, which is also a better policy in some respects as if diversifies your traffic rather than having it all just coming from one key phrase.
Plus, competing for a large term with lots of traffic can take years and a lot of hard work and most likely dominated by sites which are more powerful than yours. You need to build your power over time by chasing the less competitive keywords, before graduating to the big fish.
As with any process, you can do it for free, which is usually a little more time consuming, or you can use paid tools which speed things up.
The best advice I could provide is to start off doing it the free route in order to understand the process and to find out what works and why you’re doing it. This allows you to be better at the job of building links a provides much more control and a lot more personalisation, remember what I have said earlier in this article, start forming relationships, which is hard to do if you automate your process too much.
Once you’re happy and comfortable with doing the process manually and you have built your standard operating procedures for the manual way, then it’s time to change things and use some other tools.
But before you do this, it’s really important for you to save the initial version of your SOP as that will be the document you will pass on to the person you will employ to the job after you. As you have learned how to do it correctly through trial and error and you now have the experience of what works and what doesn’t, you can hand that experience to others, so they too can learn to build links, manually like you have which can be a very valuable skill.
Once you’re at this point, the question is which tools you think you need. If you have been doing manual link building up until this point, you may have your own ideas, you also may be happy with your results and don’t want to change from your process, which is fine too.
But if you feel you need to fine-tune your process, the areas you probably think you need better automation are things like target discovery, choosing targets and using other metrics that the free tools, then there’s outreach.
There are so many tools out there its hard to list them all, but the one which I think could be the best to start off with are things like Ahrefs which is now the industry standard data tool for link builders. This tool has so many benefits when you are looking for link targets but also competition analysis too plus many more features. To many link builders they can’t do their job with out it.
Of course, you do still have the option of going with the Moz tools which I mentioned in a previous section if you have gotten used to using that on the free plan, again, as a paying customer, you will have a lot of options at your disposal.
The same can be said for SEM rush. This product does not have quite big of a data set than ahrefs, but never the less, is a very comprehensive tool to use, but perhaps more focused on keywords analysis than links.
For outreach, there are lots of tools at your disposal. At the top end you can go to pitchbox, which is a premium tool which some link builder swear by, and then there are others which are a little more affordable such as buzz stream which automates the discovery of targets and outreach into one interface.
A cheaper options but one which only does one job, that of automating outreach is a gmail plugin called mailshake which is great at automating a large volume of outreach emails with follow up sequences, auto “canned” responses and a whole load more, but is a tool which many link builders love and their work flow is aligned to.
Most of the tools mentioned free trial or a full refund within 30 days to try them out to choose which you prefer.
As far as recommending any of them, I personally have used most of them and have in my personal workflow such as Ahref, SEMrush and Moz. But they are personal preferences. I would suggest that if you are interested in trialling them take advantage of that and try before you buy options, as with most things it’s a personal choice plus ofcourse there is the question of your budget and if it allows for such tools, as there are not cheap.
Even if you take your time into consideration, link building like most other SEO tasks has a cost associated with it. Getting a few low level links through your network is certainly a good start and something you should be doing for your website anyway, however to really add some power and grow the traffic, you will have to scale it up and do it consistently.
Once again, a lot of the learning process for you is the cost of time as there is a learning curve as this post testifies to, but if you then add a layer of cost for tools which are normally monthly subscriptions, it can get quite expensive, but no more so that any software-based exploit you’re hoping to use within your business.
The question is if you feel that cost is justified and if you feel you want to get a return on investment through it’s pursuit doing it within your own business?
I would say that it all depends on your priorities, and how important you feel links are for your site and indeed if you have the resources in the business to have that as an inhouse discipline along with all the other things you’re doing.
It is difficult to answer this question for you, as mentioned on a number of occasions in the post, it’s all a matter of priorities within your business. That being said, we find that few businesses need this particular discipline in house and therefore find it more cost effective to use a contractor such as Black and white boy.
The reason is simply one of economics, the cost of employing someone to do it and then learning how to build links proficiently takes investment, and if you’re a large business, that may not be an issue.
But then comes the discipline of learning how to do it, what experience is that person going to have, and how long to you give them to demonstrate that? On top of that, it’s the additional investment in the tools which are an ongoing monthly cost if you are building links consistently.
This is in contrast to using an agency to build a set amount of links for you per month for example. This then becomes a fixed cost which can be assessed on a regular basis. If that agency works in any way like we do at Black And White Boy, we can aggregate those staffing costs and monthly software costs across a number of clients. Plus we have trained our staff using the same processes which have been outlined above, so we know they can get the results our clients expect.
This is distilled into a monthly cost which is often easier to manage and justify and cheaper over all, plus the fact that should you for whatever reason want to change emphaisis in your marketing direction, you can do so without having to worry about redeploying or retraining staff, or making them redundant.
When you put it like that, that is why most companies don’t have an inhouse link builder.
Link building for your website is often looked up as a nice to have but with the emphasis post-COVID being on commercial internet usage and how it is going to grow exponentially, it’s now considered an essential.
Link building should also become part of your overall marketing strategy as it has been shown to improve rankings through adding authority and relevancy by connecting your site with other more powerful sites, over time, we have found this represents the best value for money in terms of a return on investment when compared to paid traffic.
It’s always difficult to find a balance between being in complete control of everything you do in your marketing, and being strategic and cost-effective which only you can answer for your own business, but there is only so much you can do with your business without the risk of trying to be an expert in several disciplines and not being masters at them all.
It still remains one of the most powerful way to build traffic aswell as authority and trust on line, though if you don’t know what you are doing, it can have a large learning curve which is often best handed over to someone who knows what they are doing and will get better results.