Our story must begin in the modest confines of a cramped University dormitory. The year is 1998, and two of Stanford’s finest are putting the finishing touches on The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.
“crawl and index the web efficiently, and produce more satisfactory results than existing systems.”
The PhD students plan to do this by evaluating links. In their own words:
“The Google search engine […] makes use of the link structure of the Web to calculate a quality ranking for each web page. This ranking is called PageRank and is described in detail in [Page 98].”
It is Google’s ability to use links to calculate PageRank, which sets the foundations for its future hegemony in the field of search. Named after Lawrence ‘Larry’ Page (and not after the Webpage), PageRank managed to successfully determine the importance of a Webpage based on its incoming links, and produce SERPs which reflect the descending importance of those URLs. The first modern search engine was born.
18 Years later, the search algorithm has grown substantially and Google (now Alphabet) has over $140 billion in assets under management. Not bad considering the stuffy University dormitory, littered with spare computer parts, in which it all began less than two decades ago.
Since March 2016, PageRank is no longer visible to the public. Nevertheless, links will remain a crucial part of Google’s ranking algorithm for many years to come. It is vital therefore, that Marketers understand the importance of links, and know how to get them.
This blog post will not only give you a basic introduction to the importance of links in SEO, but also provides you with actionable tips on how to get them, regardless of your vertical. With this in mind, let’s first cover the basics (I have provided anchor links to each section. Click to be taken to whichever section you want and skip what you already know):
- Different Types of Links and their Importance to SEO
- Building a Healthy Link Profile
- What to Avoid
- The Power of Guest Blogging
- Competitor Targeting
- Spreading the Message
- Nailing your Anchor Text
- Remove & Disavow Low-quality Links
- Conclusion | Your Guide to Link Building
- Leave me a Comment
Different types of links and their importance to SEO
Links are essentially short snippets of HTML, which allow publishers to transport the reader to another Webpage. The HTML looks something like this:
[CODE]<a href=”http://www.cgrundy.com/”>This part is called the Anchor text</a>[CODE]
The result of this example would be: This part is called the Anchor text.
Now we understand links in very basic terms. The URL hides under the Anchor text, which is visible to readers at first glance. If you hover over the anchor text with your mouse, the URL hidden underneath should appear on the bottom left of your screen. By clicking on the link the URL is revealed.
Basic stuff, but an integral part of Google’s ranking algorithm nevertheless. Consequently, search engine’s need to understand links in more complex terms. These are:
There are doFollow and NoFollow links
NoFollow is a value that can be assigned to the rel attribute of an HTML element to instruct some search engines that the hyperlink should not influence the ranking of the link’s target in the search engine’s index. Despite this common belief, many case studies suggest that NoFollow links play a vital part in the overall link profile of a domain, and may even improve rankings.
NoFollow links are particularly common on Forums and Comment Threads, where the Domain’s Webmaster is unwilling to pass importance/votes/link juice to potentially harmful, spammy or low-quality websites. It is important to understand that links marked NoFollow, still send traffic to the designated URL, but have a smaller impact on search engine rankings compared to DoFollow links.
There is no DoFollow tag, as links are so by default. DoFollow links are defined as links which pass importance/votes/link juice to achieve a better page rank in search engines. Thus, links without the NoFollow tag tell search engine’s to count that particular link and use it to strengthen the importance and authority of the page it is linking to.
To summarize: Links are DoFollow by default. If Webmaster’s want to stop a particular link passing on positive ranking signals to Google and other search engines, they can place a NoFollow tag. However, many (myself included) believe that NoFollow links play an important part in SEO and should be considered desirable.
Now that we understand the two most important types of links, let’s look at how you can spot them on a page. The easiest way to do it, is by using the Link Parser Chrome Extension. It will show you the status of all links on the page in a heartbeat (many other alternatives are available for those who do not use chrome). The second way, is to have a look at the sourcecode of a Webpage. Right-click on the page, and click “View Sourcecode”. Voila, you will now be able to see any NoFollow tags placed on the page.
Building a Healthy Link Profile
So now that we have the basics under our belt, we need to wrap our heads around the fact that links from different sources have different value in the eyes of search engines. This is not only true in isolation, but also as a collective Link Profile. What do I mean by that?
Well, Google has become incredibly sophisticated and understands that a high-quality website will have links pointing to it from many different sources. To illustrate this point, let’s imagine your Website only has links from a high-authority domain like Search Engine Journal. With a domain authority of 84, you might be forgiven for believing this to be a great state of affairs.
The opposite is the case however. Google deems this kind of link profile suspicious, and instead puts great emphasis on a diversity of sources.
The strength of a diverse link profile can be observed by the screenshot provided below.
Now we know that different inbound links from a variety of sources help to build Google’s trust in your domain, eventually boosting your rankings.
The second thing we need to understand, is that this kind of healthy link profile tells Google that growth has been achieved naturally. This is a point worth going into, because Google has been coming down hard on those who do low-quality link building, since the release of the Panda Update.
As you can see, the graph shows a steady increase over time, followed by significant growth from November onward. It’s not just a steady increase either, as there are dips when referring domains are lost, as would happen during natural link growth.
If the number of referring domains had gone from, say, o to 75,000 in a short time-frame (30 days for example) Google would view it with suspicion. This may well lead to further investigation and a manual action (penalty).
Another important point to consider here is the variety of Anchor texts, and we will go into that in more detail below.
What to avoid
Now that we know what links are, and what vital role they play in Google’s search engine algorithm, we should briefly turn our attention on what NOT do to! Ie. what should you avoid doing at all costs in terms of link building. No link building is ALWAYS better than bad or low-quality link building. Because you might not rank first without links, but you might not rank at all after a penalty.
Just don’t do it. It’s a really bad idea. Don’t believe me? Here’s Danny Sullivan from Entrepreneur backing me up:
Danny Sullivan – Entrepreneur.com – This is an easy question to answer: Don’t buy links. That is, don’t buy links if you care about ranking well in Google in the long-term. They can seriously mess you up.
Sullivan goes on to explain that links are like votes to Google. A link is a vote of confidence. Of trust. If Google realises you are trying to “rig the election” by buying links and manufacturing votes, your search engine traffic will evaporate over night.
Just take a look at the number of manual actions taken by Google every month:
Not sure what buying a link means exactly? Watch Matt Cutts lay down the truth and go into the topic in a little more detail:
Private Blog Networks
A Private Blog Network (PBN) is: Chris Grundy – a set of domains that you own, and use to link towards a domain you are trying to rank.
A PBN is powerful because it allows you to control the links as well as the content of many different domains. This allows you to create and alter the content and Anchor texts of your inbound links. In other words, you are manufacturing, and not earning, votes in Google’s SERP election.
To illustrate this point, let’s assume you own and control 20 domains. One of which you are trying to rank for a highly profitable, yet niche, keyword. Being in control of a PBN, you can produce and publish content on all 20 domains that fits within your chosen niche. Now, you would place links which point toward the domain you are trying to rank. The links would be placed within content which is highly relevant to your focus keyword, and the anchor text would most likely contain your focus keywords as well.
As an example, let’s assume I want to rank www.credit-card-comparison.com for the keyword “credit card comparison”. The other 19 blogs that I own contain content relevant to credit cards, and all deal with financial topics. I then place links toward www.credit-card-comparison.com from these blogs, using the keyword “credit card comparison” or a variation of this, in the anchor text.
For many years PBNs, like those described above, where considered the be-all and end-all of SEOs and link builders. The impact they had on rankings was, and still is, undeniable. In September 2014 that somewhat changed however, when Google started coming down hard on PBNs, and manual actions were handed out like sweets.
Nevertheless, PBNs clearly still offer a quick rankings boost, as shown in many excellent case studies. That being said, Google is working tirelessly to shut them down, and you are best advised to avoid them all together.
Don’t get links from low-quality or spammy sites
On your travels through the internet, you might notice some websites facilitating DoFollow links, either through the comments sections, or some kind of contribution. Before succumbing to the lure of an easy link, make sure to check the domain authority of site, as well as the general quality of the content presented. If both seem dubious to you, do not place a link on that domain. By placing a link, you will lead Google to associate that website with yours. As a consequence, your rankings might rapidly decline, rather than improving.
Some “Black Hat” SEOs actually use this to their advantage by conducting negative SEO. Read more about that here.
What to do | The power of Guest blogging
So now that we understand what to avoid in our link building efforts, let’s turn our attention to some great White Hat techniques, which will earn you links. The first being Guest blogging.
Guest blogging has worked fantastically well for me in the past, and I highly recommend you give it a shot. The trick is to avoid spending time chasing small fry. On the flip-side, don’t go for the Times, or the Guardian either. Instead focus on the influencers in your niche. In my experience, these sites are not only going to do more to drive revenue than conventional or ‘mainstream’ sites, but are also more likely to publish your content, and link to back to you.
So let’s take a case study. About a year ago, I joined a Berlin-based bitcoin lending platform. As the only Marketer in the Startup, it was up to me to build links; so straight away I set about finding influencers in the bitcoin and investment niches. I quickly came across Coindesk (DA 82), and Lend Academy (DA 47) as huge players in the bitcoin and investment niches respectively.
Next, I reached out to to those who could get me in the door. Funnily enough, the contact form has worked best for me in the past. Here is the one I submitted to Lend Academy:
This email is far from perfect, but it just goes to show that you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. As you have already guessed, this outreach was successful, and I received an email back a few days later specifying the requirements I had to meet to get published.
When you get to this point, it is vital you agree on a deadline date as soon as possible. Give yourself enough time to write a quality piece, but not so much time that you get bumped back (or completely off) the publication schedule.
We will go in to the anatomy of a successful email outreach later on, with a better example. Instead we should now tackle the biggest hurdle we have to face in our Guest posting odyssey: Creating high-quality content.
I can already hear you groan, but fear not; this is not going to be some wishy-washy abstraction which sounds nice but helps no-one. Instead I am going to give you a clear-cut definition of “high-quality content” and tell you how to achieve it. I would define great content as fulfilling the following criteria:
Anatomy of excellent content
- Contains a story element to make your piece human, emotional and relatable.
- Data-driven. People trust numbers and expect to see them in authoritative pieces.
- Include external links to back up your arguments, and allow readers to read up on points you have raised.
- Perfect spelling and grammar.
- Short sentences. Cut out whatever fat you can. Read On Writing Well for the definitive guide.
- Include Subheadings in order to structure your content and make it easily digestible.
- Include Anchor links in longer pieces to allow readers to skip parts they are already familiar with
- Good sized, easily readible font.
- Short, easily digestible paragraphs.
- Optimised images/screenshots which stimulate the reader. Remember to compress the image size.
- Include interactive element if possible, in order to keep the reader engaged.
- Number and/or emotional wording in the title.
- Contains numbered and/or styled lists
- At least 1500 words long, with a clear structure.
- Keyword in the H1, H2 and included in the first paragraph of the article.
With these points in mind, I set out to create my guest post for Lend Academy. A day before the deadline, I sent in my piece and after some editing, it was published. So what is the value you can get out of guest posting? Is all this effort really worth it?
The value of Guest posting on high authority sites are threefold:
- Guest posts on high-authority, high-traffic sites result in referral traffic for your site (and most likely revenue). Strong domains, like Lend Academy, rank for tough keywords, and guest posting is a great way to rank by proxy. Your content, but not your domain.
- The backlinks you receive are very valuable and help to boost your rankings, especially because you can determine the Anchor text of your backlinks. Additionally, other investment blogs look to Lend Academy (or any influencer) as a benchmark, and will consequently link to you and your article, as well as syndicate the guest post, resulting in more links.
- High-authority sites are trusted in their niche. If you are mentioned in their hallowed pages, or even have a guest post published on their domain, trust in you and your brand will grow. People who would otherwise not have heard of or trusted you, will now approach your brand with a more open mind.
Finding guest posting opportunities
Now that we understand how to create great content, and what value guest posting provides, let’s take a minute to look at how you can find guest posting opportunities quickly.
The easiest way is to find a suitable domain from this list of sites that allow guest posts. Once you’ve gone through this list, you can enter your preferred keyword into the Google search bar and add “write for”.
This will provide you with a list of domains which accept guest posts. If this fails for some reason, head over to BuzzSumo, click on the influencer tab and enter your preferred keyword.
Without having to login or sign up, you will be able to see ~10 influencers in your niche. You can now reach out and ask for a guest post.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, that getting your foot in the door as a contributor is tough. You will most likely need to send 20+ emails before you get an affirmative reply. Once you’ve built up your portfolio however, it will get much, much easier.
As you can imagine, this kind of email has a far higher response rate than those I sent off at the beginning, cap in hand, with little to my name.
My second favourite way of building links, is by following the Skyscraper technique pioneered by Brian Dean from Backlinko. It follows three basic steps:
- Find a page that contains great content and has plenty of links
- Make similar but better content
- Reach out to those who linked to the inferior content and tell them about your superior content
It’s a very efficient way of building links, because it relies on the Webmaster’s desire to bring the best content to their readers. Anyone who is financially reliant on their domain, will rip your hand off if you offer them amazing content. Nobody can explain this technique better than the creator, so check out the article on the Skyscraper technique I linked to above, for more information.
You might be glad to hear that not all types of link building involve content creation. By targeting domains that have linked to your competitors, you might well be able to earn a link simply be alerting the Webmaster to your presence.
To get started, google a keyword for which you have content which is not ranking. Pop the best ranking URLs into Ahrefs and check out their referring domains. You will come across blog posts which aim to be comprehensive. Now find their contact info and send them an email, explaining the service you provide, and how adding you to the blog post (with a link) will provide additional value to their readers.
Only about 1/10 will link to you. The links you do get won’t be as valuable in terms of traffic either, as most of the time, you are simply one in a sea of links, resulting in few clicks. In the eyes of Google however this is still a valuable link, which will help your rankings. Below, is a recent example of this technique:
Broken link building
The next way of getting links, is by replacing your competitors broken backlinks. To start, head over to ahrefs and put in your competitors URL. Then click on “Broken” backlinks on the left.
This will provide you with a lengthy list of broken backlinks pointing towards your competitors domain. Armed with this, reach out to the relevant webmaster and inform them of the broken link. In the same email, explain the service you provide and why you deserve to be mentioned alongside your competitor or even replace them.
The success rate for this kind of link building tends to be quite high, because Webmasters are grateful you alerted them to a broken link. They will most likely know that broken links harm their user experience and are considered a warning signal in Google’s Search Engine Guidelines.
Spreading the message
Depending on your niche, you might even achieve links ‘naturally’, without any link building efforts on your part. In order for natural link growth to occur, it’s not enough to simply create great content; you need to bring it out into the world.
Sending out a tweet isnt going to be enough here. Instead, try to harness the power of the following platforms to bring your content to the right people (for free):
- Linkedin – Publish a synopsis of your content on LinkedIn and link to the full article
- Medium – See above
- Reddit – Find questions for which your blog post provides the answer. Answer the question but link to your content at the end for those who want more information on the topic.
- Quora – See above
- Social Media – Use buffer to schedule your posts across platforms and bring your content to the people regularly.
- Comment on high-authority sites
By using these platforms, you will increase your natural reach by a factor of ten. As time passes, and you become better known, your followers will share and comment on your content, amplifying its reach further. The more people get to see your content, the higher the chance someone will link to it.
Nailing your Anchor Text
Google in particular places great value in Anchor Texts, which means that not all links are created equal. Many case studies have shown that ‘exact match’ and ‘partial match’ have a particularly strong effect on your domains’ rankings, and you would do well to pursue them in particular.
This doesn’t change the fact that all links are valuable, but the value of exact and partial anchor texts is definitely something you should have on your radar.
With that being said, many authoritative voices in the Online Marketing space, believe that the current strength of specific anchor texts will fade, as Google and other search engine’s determine a natural Anchor text profile. You might argue that this already happened with the 2012 Penguin Update, which saw a crackdown on domains with swathes of un-naturally earned links.
According to GotchSEO:
https://www.gotchseo.com/anchor-text/ – “Penguin targeted any website that was blatantly doing low-quality, artificial, or spammy link building in an effort to “game” the search engine. How did they determine if a website is building links artificially or using spam to rank? Simple. ANCHOR TEXT.”
Thus, be sure to include some variety in your Anchor texts in order to keep Google off your back and ensure a healthy profile.
If you need me to put a number on it; ensure you never have 60% links with keyword-rich Anchor texts.
Remove and disavow low-quality links
If you’ve followed the steps I have outlined above, you can skip right over this bit. If, for whatever reason, you have links from low-quality and spammy websites pointing towards your domain, you will need to disavow them as quickly as possible. I would urge you to do this despite some industry experts declaring the whole thing a waste of time.
The reasoning behind this is simple: In order to protect yourself from any future Google updates, which penalise poor links even further, you need to get rid of (read: disavow) all low-quality links pointing towards your site.
If you are in two minds, as to whether some of your links need to be disavowed, have a look at this article which goes into the topic in significant detail. If you need more information on how to disavow links, this article from Shout Me Loud will teach you everything you need to know.
You can disavow links here.
Conclusion | Your Guide to Link Building
It is incredible to think that less than 20 years ago, two Computer Science geniuses were crafting the search engine named Google, which has gone on to become the internet’s colossus. Importantly, the success of Google still lies in its ability to understand and evaluate links, and their Anchor texts.
In this article we have covered all the bases need to score a homerun with your link building efforts. Not only do you now know what links are, but you also understand the value they provide in terms of rankings. We covered major techniques which will allow you to earn links naturally, and in an efficient manner.
Finally, we looked at the value of anchor texts, and briefly discussed the disavow tool. If you have any questions, or something I have said is unclear or plain wrong, please leave me a comment below and I will be delighted to discuss it with you.