I’ll come clean.
I’m a recovered black hat link builder.
Back in the “good old days” link building was the least of my worries. Just pop in a request to my local PBN owner for a few links to the page I wanted to rank, define some rich anchor text and watch the rankings (and the organic traffic, and the sales…) skyrocket for my client in record time.
Now that I’m older and (presumably) wiser, I know this isn’t a sustainable SEO strategy. SEO agencies can't just spam links and hope Google doesn't notice. Google is getting better and better at identifying link building schemes so in the long run, for the security of you and your clients’ rankings and traffic, moving to a purely white hat link building strategy is the way to go.
Backlink Building Strategies that Keep Google Happy
But white hat link building is hard. Really hard. Performing outreach, by finding viable link building opportunities on niche websites accepting accept guest posts or identifying influences and bloggers that would find your content valuable... gaining high quality backlinks to your web pages has more in common with sales departments than website optimisation teams. There’s prospecting, rejection and a whole lot of excitement once links start to flow.
For established brands, link building can be a bit easier. They might have some industry authority or perceived expertise they can leverage that put’s influencers and website owners at ease. Knowing that the content comes from a trusted website (often with an accompanying high domain authority) makes it easier to gain links to those resources.
Smaller brands don’t have this luxury. While they may be a smaller team of absolute top-notch subject matter experts, their content doesn’t come stamped with the branding of larger organisations so they can’t scale links and traffic as effectively. Links are still a major ranking factor and are often required to allow the content of these organisations to break away from the pack.
So how can smaller brands in particular, with less time or marketing budget to dedicate to link building, get the most “bang for their buck”? What should responsible, white hat search engine marketers be doing to ensure our link building efforts generate a great ROI, and how do we scale our efforts?
Pipe Dreams or Efficient Backlink Strategies
Given creating effective link building campaigns are hard, and scaling these efforts is an issue for every white hat SEO I have spoken to, there is a clear market for SEO gurus and bloggers to promote content with click-bait titles (“6 POWERFUL Ways to Double Your Link Building”, “Halve Your Link Building Time with This #1 Method”)...
But which, if any, of these silver bullets actually work? Which do SEOs working ‘in the trenches’ use and find effective?
I surveyed members of the search marketing community working in agencies and in-house for brands to find which of the most commonly discussed techniques
- They would be using in their 2020 link building strategies
- Were time efficient in terms of number of links earned per hour of work.
The 6 main strategies I was interested in were:
These methods appear frequently in “how to build links” guides on almost any SEO blog or search marketing website. Given how frequently they appear, and are advocated for, in search marketing content these were good candidates to delve into.
Which Techniques Will Be Used In 2020?
There are likely to be many changes in digital marketing in 2020, with Google launching algorithm changes that have big impacts on our content marketing plays. But for SEO, gaining quality backlinks will not be among them. While the emphasis on links has been somewhat downplayed due to Google using nofollow links as a 'hint', backlink building strategies based around dofollow links from high quality content with great anchor text will remain strong vital to organic digital marketing success.
Given the above, the first question to be addressed in our survey was which techniques would actually be used by search engine optimisation professionals. Participants were asked to indicate, yes or no, if they would be using the below methods to build new links.
Blogger outreach and guest blogging are the clear winners, with almost all participants pursuing this technique moving forward. The near 100% guarantee of coming to an arrangement with a blog means results can be predicted in advance and potentially re-leveraged for later link efforts.
Leveraging existing relationships has its benefits. “Since I have established real relationships, I can get my clients organic follow links on blogs that have a real readership because bloggers trust my content and are in need of high-quality, original articles.” Darcy Cudmore says of the use of outreach strategies implemented at Darcy Allan PR.
Bringing up the bottom of the list is link reclamation with only 33% of respondents utilising this technique. “Forget link reclamation” suggests Alexander J Porter, Head of Copy at Search It Local. “If you want to build good links at scale, it's time to start making friends in high places. Once you're successfully connecting with bloggers, you'll have access to a network of high-quality websites.”
The idea behind this is that the scalability of the tactic is so low. Site owners looking to scale link efforts should seek to develop mutually beneficial, long term relationships to both the website being reached out to and the website receiving the promotion or link on the target website.
Which Techniques Are Time Efficient?
Which of the 6 techniques did search engine marketers find to be time efficient in terms of the number of links won per hour of time expended utilising the technique? Participants were asked to rank on a scale of low, medium and high.
The most popular and most time efficient outreach strategy was blogger outreach, with 61% of respondents rating this as a highly efficient link building strategy. Guest posting came in at number 2 with nearly 45%. This highlights why these techniques will be major strategies of almost all link builders in 2020 given how relatively time efficient these can be in generating links.
Link reclamation and un-linked mentions are still getting no love from SEOs. The one-time, one-way street of these requests deems them unworthy of over-invested time. It may be worth shooting off a quick email to claim un-linked mentions, as some respondents had some success with this tactic, but using them occasionally is best.
Broken link building sat in the middle, with participants willing only half the time to request webmasters replace a dead link with their high quality, brand new content. While neither particularly efficient nor inefficient, almost 80% of SEOs will be using this method moving forward due to the quality of the links placed. It may not win a large number of links but quality can be better than quantity.
It was interesting to see that the Skyscraper method, while popular as a strategy for 2020 with 78%, was also slated at the bottom in terms of time efficiency.
This is likely due to the hours, if not days, it takes to research and write a piece of content better than something that already exists. It’s not guaranteed to be perceived by Google or searchers as more valuable, so it may not gain links.
If an SEO invested the same amount of time utilising guest posting or leveraging existing blogger relationships as they did in creating a huge piece of extremely high-quality content, then the blogger strategies might guarantee several links. But the ability of a single, well-crafted content piece to win a tonne of links keeps the skyscraper method around as a valuable link building tool.
Scaling Link Building
While choosing the right technique for your client is part of a good, time effective link strategy that’s not the end of the story. There are supplemental techniques, tactics and tools which will increase the overall efficiency of your link creation activities.
Our research showed that link building at scale is about relationships. “My number one tip for link building effectively is to be personable. Don't forget that there is another human behind the response you are looking to get” advises Tess Robison, SEO Outreach Specialist at Money Done Right.
When link building that, in many cases, you are asking a busy blogger, social media influence or website owner to take time out of their day to do something that has some benefit for them, but a huge benefit for you. Be polite and considerate.
“No matter the method or strategy, the most important part is preparation. If you want to do outreach, create a list of prospects with all their details neatly organised beforehand” advises Jakub Kliszczak, Marketing Specialist at Crazy Call. “I've seen many people struggle to jump between writing emails, checking details on prospects, etc. because they had to pull out the information on the go.”
Milan Narayan, Head of Digital at Adoni Media, suggests structuring your teams so that each has a specific role in the link building process. “Break link building responsibilities into specific sections within the team. If you have the ability to apply an Agile methodology, then do so. Each task should be split across a team and those people should be accountable for meeting deadlines.”
“Focus on your most efficient methods and move on to the next best performer only when you've stopped seeing results” says Tom Wills, Outreach Manager at Slickplan. “All too often extra resource can be wasted on activities like guest blogging, which can be great but not necessarily produce the biggest bang for your hourly buck.”
Organisation and clarity of process and strategy mean you can track what works, and results can be replicated through a clear process for each client you bring on.
BE CONSISTENT AND PATIENT
Building links takes time and consistency, so follow up links that you are trying to get placed. ”Following up is key when it comes to gaining links. 70% of outreach stops after the first initial email, however it is the 30% that see results from a follow-up” explains Beth Kearsley of Tao Digital.
“Patience is key. If your campaign isn't a success at first, you need to be able to maintain a level of patience with it. Campaigns take time and gaining quality links takes time” says Ben Duke of Zeal.
CREATE THE RIGHT CONTENT, THE RIGHT WAY
Chris Grays, Outreach Specialist at Matter Solutions, suggests you “work with a fixed content team that is familiar with a client's products and services. Content produced in house works far better than outsourcing, as we can prioritise strong leads for a shorter turnaround time.”
SEO has more to do with content marketing than ever before. Great content should be produced in accordance with the kinds of content searchers are looking for to fully satisfy their intent and increase the likelihood of attaining backlinks. This is why Darren Osborne, Owner at Bison IT, prefers to create “educational content that potential clients are looking for such as infographics, written content or instructional videos.”
Timeliness of content can also enhance your link building efforts as not only are you creating the right kind of content, but it is immediately relevant to content others may be producing and so can earn more links due to its freshness.
“Look into the seasonality trends, news, everything that might interest your audience. Thanks to it, you increase your chances to get more natural links through social sharing and blog sharing” recommends Irena Zobniów, Co-Founder of Insightland.
As simple way to win some early, easy links is to use expert roundups. ”Because they are all involved in creating the article, the experts are much more inclined to link to it" says Minuca Elena.
This will ensure content is authoritative, which is the kind of content people will want to link to.
USE THE RIGHT TOOLS
Use of the right SEO tools can help optimise the link building process.
”An outreach software tool is a necessity for every website looking to scale their link building efforts” says Kim Seth, Content marketing specialist at Simply CRM. “We've been using Ninja Outreach to find more prospects and send bulk emails, and we've had excellent results with it.”
This is a tool Bettina Clark of Prospected utilises. “I also use Ninja Outreach where I find guest posting opportunities and bloggers much faster.”
“Ahrefs is one of the most useful tools I know that makes it possible to create a huge list of link prospects. Once my list is built, I use Mailshake to save myself a ton of time in the link building process” says Oksana Chyketa, Marketer at Albacross.
“Broken links are generally easy to find using Ahrefs or similar tools” says Loius Watton of Shiply. Finding broken links, and then analysing and reaching out to the websites that link to the resource, can win numerous links from the creation of one content piece, so having a tool to streamline this can save SEOs a lot of time.
Omar Fonseca, Digital Marketing Manager for Medicare Plan Finder, uses SEO tools for link prospecting, preferring to use “Moz’s ‘Link Explorer’ (similar tool is Ahrefs ‘Site Explorer’) to turn a single broken link into hundreds of link opportunities.“
Prospecting for link opportunities can be a huge time sink, so leveraging the right tools to streamline the chosen link building tactic is critical to success and delivering the highest amount of links to your clients or business’s content.
MULTIPLE BACKLINK OPPORTUNITIES FROM ONE CONTACT
When successfully contacting a prospect about outreach, discuss options on other pages or sites they work with which would benefit from the link. ”Reach out to websites or organisations that would be more than happy to link to you on several pages” suggests Gregory Golinski , Head of SEO at Your Parking Space. “Why acquire one backlink when you can get several of them?”
What Makes Effective Link Building Strategies Work?
There are three clear takeaways from the responses:
1. Build Relationships
Build and develop with website owners and bloggers who can trust the quality of your content and who you trust to promote it. The most effective link builders can utilise these relationships over time and across a number of client accounts.
2. Utilise tools to support and speed up link prospecting
Manually finding link prospects can work, but to make your chosen strategy even more effective, supplement them with a range of tools.
3. Have a well-defined process
Ad hoc, random link building efforts with thrown together content is not going to be very time efficient. The content you create must be for a specific reason, addressing the interests and needs of a particular group to ensure it is “link worthy”.
Developing a backlink profile full of high quality links, rather than just a profile with a large number of links is a difficult journey. Long gone are the days of spammy blog comments and resource page link building. The clear winners for the most time efficient link building strategies, which are used by a significant percentage of search engine marketers, are those which rely on relationships.
While the old adage of "create quality content" remains true, If you aren’t sure where to spend your link building time, developing good relationships to share good content will never be time wasted.