Sustainable Link Building Techniques: Your Ultimate Guide
It’s not 2007 anymore, and while the rules have definitely changed, link building is still a crucial component of search engine optimisation (SEO). High-quality and relevant backlinks indicate to Google that your on-site content is valuable, thus improving your rankings. Still, the internet is a wildly competitive place. With tonnes of link building techniques and other SEO strategies out there, it can be easy to get lost amidst your efforts to climb the search engine results pages (SERPs).
If you want to:
- Establish and maintain authority in your niche
- Build valuable long-term business relationships
- Increase consistent referral traffic to your website
- Enhance your brand recognition
…then you’ll need well-thought-out, data-driven, and enduring link building techniques in place. So, how do you accomplish that? When it comes to creating and earning quality backlinks, one element should be consistent: sustainability.
Much like a sustainable marketing strategy, an effective link-building campaign requires a holistic approach. If you want to optimise your efforts and resources, then you’ll need to think in more long-term dimensions.
In this complete guide, we’ll walk you through the basic building blocks of your backlink profile, the Do’s and Don’ts, and some expert tips and tricks to help you achieve sustainable link building.
Table of contents
- The Basics of Backlinks
- A Brief Background
- Backlinking Challenges
- Why Are Backlinks Still Important?
- What Are High-Quality Backlinks?
- The Do’s and Don’ts of Sustainable Link Building
- 4 Sustainable Practices
- The Bottom Line
The Basics of Backlinks
A backlink, also known as a “one-way link”, “inbound link” or “incoming link”, is a hyperlink on one website that refers to content on another website, by linking back to it. As such, major search engines like Google consider these hyperlinks as a vote of authority or trust.
Search engines crawl pages on the internet to extract content and add it to their indices. During this process, they determine whether a page meets certain standards of quality to rank well according to the relevant keywords. They also look at how many links point to the page from external websites and whether these websites are of quality or not.
The general rule of thumb is that a page with more “votes” or backlinks from high-quality websites tends to have better organic SERPs rankings. Essentially, a backlink tells search engines that the linked content is useful, credible, and valuable.
A Brief Background
Links have been a ranking factor since the 90s when Google came up with PageRank. It allowed the search engine to measure the quality of pages and later formed part of the overall ranking algorithm. Seen as a vote of confidence, a backlink, in theory, indicated that the page in question is a good resource.
After all, why else would another website link to it, right? Of course, as with most things, people soon found ways to manipulate PageRank results. In response, Google implemented measures to try to identify and filter out websites undeserving of their SERP rank.
Since then, Google has updated its guidelines and Core Algorithm numerous times. Changes in approach to SEO and link-building best practices have naturally followed. Today, some previously acceptable link building techniques can even result in penalisation.
For instance, after the implementation of the Google Penguin Spam Filter (which forms part of Google’s Core Algorithm), backlink buying can actually hurt your rankings. That’s why it’s crucial to understand which link-building strategies to avoid, especially if you’re aiming for long-term sustainability (but more on that later).
Link building as a ranking factor forms part of your overall SEO strategy. This, in turn, influences your online marketing plan. After all, the primary objective of SEO is to optimise your website to rank higher and ultimately drive more traffic through your virtual doors. Still, building a backlink profile comes with its challenges.
Before you can implement sustainable link-building strategies, it’s best to understand more about what it entails.
It Takes Time and Resources
Whether you produce your own content or hire a freelancer, you’ll need to invest a fair bit of time or resources, or both. Link building isn’t an exact science, so it’s wise to consider how much money and effort you can put in without compromising the other facets of your business or website.
Content Doesn’t Guarantee Links
Content-driven link building, even when done perfectly, doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get those precious backlinks. You can work tirelessly on a well-executed, informative, and engaging piece of content and still not earn any links.
We’ll discuss this aspect and some solutions in more detail later in this article. That said, you’ll always need excellent content to achieve a higher search engine ranking, so either way, it won’t be a waste of your time.
It Can Be Risky
Generally speaking, link building comes with a fair amount of risk if you adopt what’s known as “grey-hat” or “black-hat” strategies. It’s best to stick to “white-hat” techniques if you want long-term sustainability. Our Do’s and Don’t section below has more information.
Campaigns Are Often Short-Lived
Link-building campaigns typically start at one date and end at another. As such, most people launch one, finish it, and move onto the next. This isn’t exactly a long-term approach. Fortunately, we’ve got some tricks to help you move past this mindset and into a more sustainable strategy.
Why Are Backlinks Still Important?
No one knows Google’s precise algorithm. However, despite the search engine’s Penguin updates, various independent studies, SEO specialists and even Google employees have all indicated that backlinks are still a crucial ranking factor. The general consensus is that a page with high-quality backlinks from numerous established websites will rank better than a page with:
- Low-quality backlinks
- High-quality backlinks from the same websites
What Are High-Quality Backlinks?
As you can see, quality outweighs quantity. Not all links are created equally, though. In fact, too many weak or risky backlinks could cause a huge loss of organic traffic and set your SERP ranking back quite severely. The high-quality variety often shares a few common traits, listed below:
They Come From Authoritative Websites
A single backlink from a trusted and reputable website such as National Geographic is worth more than 500 links from a random, low-ranking blog site. All websites have a Domain Authority (DA) score which you can obtain by using an online domain checker.
Essentially, the higher the score, the more authority a site has. Google takes this into consideration because it trusts that authoritative sites only link to quality content. As such, high-DA websites can pass authority onto your site via a backlink. These kinds of links are difficult to earn but they’re worth every second.
They’re “dofollow” Links
The majority of hyperlinks you’ll come across are “dofollow” links. However, there are also “nofollow” links. While useful, they don’t count towards SEO and SERPs and aren’t of much value, anyway. These “nofollow” links usually come from paid advertisements, press releases, and blog comments.
They’re Relevant to the Site and the Linked Page
If a site uses “best mattresses” and links to a restaurant, then it could harm that site’s SERPs. Remember, Google and other search engines rank websites that provide relevant and informative content higher than ones that don’t. The same goes for backlinks.
They Include a Targeted Keyword in the Anchor Text
Anchor text is the visible part of a hyperlink. It tells the reader where the link goes. In recent years, it’s become standard practice to include a targeted keyword in the anchor text. Many independent studies, including one conducted by Ahrefs, have shown that it correlates with higher search engine rankings.
However, be careful not to “over-optimise” your links. Google Penguin penalises and filters out websites that use exact match anchor text as it’s considered a “black-hat” strategy.
They Appear on a Number of Referring Domains
A website linking to your page the second, third, fourth etc. time doesn’t have as much impact on your search engine ranking as the first time. In other words, it’s better to get 50 links from 50 different websites than it is to get 500 links from the same website.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Sustainable Link Building
Now that you know more about building links, it’s time to look at a few fundamental principles and tactics. Keep these in mind if you want to incorporate sustainable practices to get those prized backlinks.
There are hundreds of ways to build links but generally speaking, they can be grouped into three categories. White-hat strategies include tactics that fall within Google’s or other search engine’s webmaster guidelines. As such, they’re typically low-risk but can take time to accomplish.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, black-hat practices explicitly violate search engine guidelines while grey-hat tactics fall somewhere in between. Both categories offer “quick-wins” but have varying degrees of risk to consider.
DO Incorporate Trusted White-Hat Strategies
If you’re reading this, it likely means you’re working hard to build your business online and don’t want to do anything to risk that. As with any marketing campaign, you need to weigh up the pitfalls and benefits of the strategies you want to implement.
White-hat tactics are recommended as they pose the least amount of risk. It’s unlikely that a website employing above-board practices will get penalised by Google.
Moreover, white-hat strategies are about adding genuine value to your niche, your customers and to the internet. It takes more time to build lucrative backlinks the right way. Still, it’s much more sustainable in the long run. Some examples of white-hat strategies include:
- Producing insightful, unique, and informative content
- Engaging with other industry experts and enthusiasts in your niche
- Genuinely promoting your website to relevant people
Not only will you garner real brand authority, but you’ll also be able to drive the right kind of referral traffic to your site.
DON’t Take Risks With Shady Practices
Black-hat and grey-hat strategies are designed to get websites ranking higher than they deserve to. They typically find and exploit loopholes in search engine algorithms. As such, they may seem like quick and easy “wins” but more often than not, they’re short-lived. Search engines are always improving their algorithms to identify shady practices.
You could lose your SERPs and website traffic overnight. It can happen at any time and if you’re using these kinds of tactics, you’ll have to worry about that constantly. Black-hat and even grey-hat strategies won’t bring you long-term success, so it’s best to steer clear. Some examples include:
- Private blog network (PBN) link building that “simulates” backlinks from high-DA sites
- Cloaking links by being dishonest about what it shows users and search engines
- Exploiting a security flaw by injecting your hidden links into a website
Guest posting is one of the most popular ways to build backlinks. However, with everyone and their uncle doing it, Google noticed a decline in quality content and actively started devaluing links built this way. While still helpful, guest post blogging shouldn’t be your only link building technique.
DO Create Valuable Content
Many reputable sites such as Moz still accept guest posts. However, if you want to earn links, you’ll need to produce excellent, valuable content. Remember, your anchor text should also be natural. A navigational phrase or brand keyword may be good options.
DON’T Stuff Keywords
Besides the fact that high-ranking sites probably won’t accept keyword-stuffed submissions, search engines can also penalise you. And if a site does accept a low-quality post, it likely has a low Domain Authority. Ultimately, you won’t be doing yourself any favours.
Forum and Blog Comments
Similar to the previous example, many people have exploited the comment sections of blogs and forums, spamming them with links for their backlink profiles. This also resulted in Google changing the rules and devaluing such links.
DO Contribute Contextual Value
You can still drop a link in the comments during a valid online discussion. However, you’ll need to make sure it’s contextually relevant. It’s also wise to steer clear of commercialised keywords for your anchor texts.
DON’T Overdo It
It’s perfectly fine to contribute to a forum or blog with insights and a useful link. The problem comes in when you overdo it by dropping loads of generic comments all signed with your name and website linked. You could be penalised by Google.
This is yet another technique that was exploited, resulting in these links losing value. That said, you can still benefit by adding your backlink to an industry-relevant directory. The best kinds of directories provide valuable information and resources to people interested in your particular niche.
DO Keep It Relevant
Only build links to your website in relevant, reputable, and trustworthy directories. If you do this right, it could help your ranking and drive more targeted traffic to your website.
DON’T Add Your Backlink to Any Directory
Remember, Google doesn’t look favourably upon non-related links, so avoid backlinking to random websites. Moreover, some web directories don’t provide any real value to users. You don’t want your website link appearing in one of these.
In the early days, many SEOs adopted this technique because it was easy. However, the landscape has significantly changed since then, and Google wants websites to rank on merit and not because of deep pockets. Today, buying links directly violates Google’s webmaster guidelines.
That said, there is a small, yet vital distinction between buying links and purchasing advertising links. The former will get you penalised and the latter is a fantastic way to promote your business and build brand awareness.
DO It For Advertising
If you’re going to buy advertising links, it’s crucial that they don’t pass PageRank. Essentially, this means they won’t be included in your page’s search engine ranking. There are a few ways you can do this, such as:
- Changing them to “nofollow” links
- Using a redirected page blocked in robots.txt
DON’T Do It Just for the Sake of Links
Buying links can still be dangerous. If you do it just for links, you run the risk of incurring penalties for your website. Advertising backlinks can be risky, too. It’s often not worth risking your organic traffic and current ranking for a short-term benefit.
As its name suggests, this technique plays on people’s egos. The idea is that if you author a piece of content about a few notable individuals in your niche, they may be inclined to share the article with a link to your page. Done right, it can be an effective link-building strategy. However, this kind of targeted content is usually only relevant to a handful of high-profile websites or people.
DO Keep it Simple
A top ten or a similar listicle type of article is ideal for this strategy. Remember, you don’t want to end up with overly complicated content that one of your featured persons might not read.
DON’T Skimp on the Research
You’ll want to add as much detail about a person as possible. Try to include images where you can catch their eye and improve your chances of receiving a backlink. Additionally, make sure you have the contact details you need for outreach when the time comes.
Broken Link Building
This is another crowd favourite among SEO specialists, bloggers, and everyone in between. Broken link building works. It’s scalable, content-focused, and ideal for busy marketers. Essentially, all you need to do is find broken links, create better replacement content and reach out to the webmasters. More often than not, they’ll be happy to update the broken link with yours.
DO Find High-Quality Broken Links
To make the best out of this exercise, it’s essential to target high-ranking domains. It won’t be worth all the effort for a low-quality backlink that you don’t really want.
DON’T Be Too Pushy
When it’s time for outreach, remember to be polite. It can be frustrating when a webmaster declines your request after you’ve done all the work. Still, it happens sometimes. Fortunately, you can try to find similar broken links to replace.
4 Sustainable Practices
Sustainability is about more than one particular strategy or a set of tactics. It’s about approaching link-building opportunities with your long-term goals in mind. To that end, here are four sustainable practices to incorporate into your link building techniques.
Make Sure Your Content is Evergreen
Specific days of the year or special events in your niche present a plethora of content ideas. However, when a piece of content doesn’t bring in the links you had hoped for and is no longer relevant after a certain time, it can feel like a waste.
Fortunately, you can sidestep this disaster quite easily. You won’t have to miss out on the opportunity to present time-sensitive and relevant content, either. Instead of focussing on the specific date, gear your content towards the topic in question.
That way, you can promote that piece of content on the day and long afterward. You’ll stand a better chance of gaining the links you wanted without the expiry date. The following year, you can even update your content instead of starting from scratch.
Build Up Your Link-Worthy Content
Treat link building as an ongoing endeavor and not a campaign that comes around every so often. Instead of creating content once-off here and there, build a bank of linkable content. By doing this, outreach will become a lot easier and even more efficient.
The process for outreach typically consists of researching ideas, producing the content, and then reaching out. Afterward, it usually reverts to step one and you start all over again. In an interview Moz did with Paddy Moogan, the SEO expert said you should be repeating the process for the same piece of content.
The result? You’ll have numerous pieces of content that are earning you backlinks consistently. This is because you’re not focusing on one piece, then the next, and the next each time. You’re optimising the chances of earning backlinks from one article, infographic, video, or other content types before moving on.
Find the Content-Format That Works For You
Do you know which content format produces the best results for you? You can work it out with four simple metrics:
- Easy vs. Hard
- Win vs. Fail
Consider the type of format used when you experienced successful link building. Was the content easy to produce or more difficult? What formats did you use when there was a fail in terms of traffic or coverage?
By cross-referencing the types of formats you’ve used with whether it was easy, hard, a win, or fail, you’ll be able to deduce the optimal format that works for you. For example, data visualisations may be difficult to produce but they consistently bring in backlinks. On the contrary, long-form may be challenging too but tend to earn you fewer backlinks.
By identifying what content formats work best for you, you’ll be able to earn links with more success.
Use Datasets to Your Advantage
Industry-relevant datasets can provide loads of fresh content ideas. But what about a different angle? Perhaps there’s a piece of content you can pitch to other regions? Are there local areas that might find it useful and informative?
What about an untapped demographic? Is it possible to dissect the data in another way that gives you a unique reference point? Can you approach it from another angle and, therefore, tackle outreach for the content differently?
Additionally, some datasets are updated annually. If you produce a piece of content now, next year you’ll be able to plug the new data in and relaunch it. You can do this every year and continue to earn links, too.
The Bottom Line
Link building remains one of the most essential search engine ranking factors but it still has its challenges. Once you’ve got the basics down, you can implement white-hat strategies that are designed for long-term success. Be sure to incorporate the above sustainable practices and principles, and you’re bound to earn those prized high-quality backlinks.