Backlinks are among the most vexing concepts for creators who want to get their content seen. We’re constantly told how important they are for improving domain authority and search rankings, but when it comes to finding advice on how to get backlinks, there’s not a whole lot of substance out there.
Generally, I find the guidance for this objective falls into two categories: 1) Some variation of “Ask nicely!” or 2) Collections of “tips and tricks” with questionable efficacy.
That’s not to say ALL content on this topic isn’t helpful. But as usual, the numerous articles promising simple shortcuts are bound to lead you astray. The truth is that there’s no magical or easy way to earn quality backlinks; it takes time, effort, and commitment. But be assured that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Here’s our usual “No BS” angle on backlinks: what they are, why they matter, and how you can actually get them.
Why Does Link Building Matter?
As a refresher, it’s good to talk about the value of link building with content. Optimizing your SEO isn’t just about what’s on your website pages. Link building is another critical practice to boost your rank. Link building could give you an edge over your competitors and give your pages more visibility to search engines.
This practice involves one website linking to another. Think of it as a referral of sorts, where website A links to website B because website B has something relevant or valuable to add to their article or post. The higher the authority of the website linking back to your content, the “better” the referral.
When a website links to your content, it means that website vouches for that piece of content. In other words, backlinks represent someone else’s vote of confidence for your posts.
Although that in itself is already a good thing, the even better news is that Google rewards content that receives those votes of confidence. When Google sees different websites – particularly the ones that have authority – vouching for your content, it concludes that the post is informative and relevant, which means it deserves to appear higher up on search engine results pages. The higher your page ranks, the more chances people will click and go to it. That means more opportunities for conversions.
In short, backlinks are a crucial part of off-site SEO.
The Benefits of Backlinks for Content Marketing
The SEO benefits are definitely real. Google is continually becoming more sophisticated in the way it analyzes and ranks search results. Today, the engine’s algorithms emphasize page quality and user engagement over technical elements like keyword density and exact-match phrasing.
When a trusted source on a particular subject links to your content covering the same subject, Google views it as a strong sign of quality. As you can see in this graph from Semrush, ”total backlinks” outweigh keywords as a ranking factor:
We can’t directly control how long people spend on our site, or how many pages they consume, or how often they bounce. So building up those referrals and backlinks is arguably the most impactful step we can take as content marketers to boost our SEO success. And as another example of the value backlinks offer in this regard, take a look at this chart via Backlinko:
Beyond the SEO benefits (and not unrelated to them) is the most basic and straightforward advantage of earning a backlink from a respected source: credibility. When someone clicks through to your page from another site that they trust and value, it sets your brand up in an authoritative light. “If Shep Hyken is linking to this blog on customer loyalty, they must really know their stuff.”
The quality of traffic coming through these referrals will be much higher than your overall benchmark, and additionally, this audience is primed to take your site seriously.
Link Building Quality: More Isn’t Always Better
Before we get into strategies, it’s important to remember that not all links are created equal. While it may seem more advantageous to have quantity over quality, quality will always be of the greatest importance in link building.
When developing a link building strategy, follow these guidelines:
- Is the site relevant to yours? The more relevant it is, the higher the quality.
- Does the site have authority? Authority means that search engines distinguish the site as being of high quality. You can use third-party tools to determine a page’s authority.
- Does the referring site have high traffic? The more traffic a referring site gets, the more opportunities for someone to click on your link. You’ll be able to track these clicks within your content analytics by looking at the referral source.
- Do search engines properly index the site? If it isn’t indexed, then it’s a worthless link.
Now that we’ve covered the basics let’s get down to the tactics.
How Google Values Links
As marketers, we all know how much Google/search engines have changed the entire dynamic of the consumer world. The majority of the world’s knowledge, goods and services are just an internet connection and a keyword away. We, as consumers, are in control. But the smart guys at Google had to figure out a way of helping us find the “best” and “most relevant” information/product/service. Today, their algorithms are so sophisticated that they learn on their own and predict the types of information/products/services that we’re going to want based on the vast swaths of data that they have stored in our profiles.
Historically, Google has always factored in the number of backlinks (a.k.a. Link Popularity) as a large portion of their PageRank algorithm that determines which web pages are the best and most relevant for your search word/phrase. Simply put, Google’s search bots would find two web pages that look relatively the same (similar words and various other attributes), then they would look at which web page had more links pointing to it and list that page first. But this link-popularity attribute was only part of the equation. What if both pages have the same number of links?
I don’t want to get too deep into the technical SEO weeds here, but it is important to understand the basics of link quality in Google’s eyes. All links are not created equal because all websites that link to you are not created equal. As Google’s algorithm evolved, the need to rank or score each web page and website became an equally-as-important factor. In other words, a link to your website from Huffingtonpost.com carries much more weight in Google than a link from DivvyHQ.com (sadly).
Since Google’s PageRank algorithms are top secret, Moz, an SEO consulting and software company, introduced their own website scoring methodology called Domain Authority (DA), which attempts to give us a general idea (score of 1-100) of how much relevance and authority our website and pages have on a certain topic area or industry.
Let me get to my point here… When looking at an inbound links report (like the one below from Moz’s Link Explorer), one inbound link from a high-ranking site (DA of 80 to 100) is better than 5 links from lower-ranking sites (DA of 1 to 25). So when I ask the question, “Who’s giving you the best link love?”, it’s important to analyze the Domain Authority column to understand from which sites your best links are coming. The more links you can cultivate (organically) from high-ranking sites, the better.
If your website is relatively new or you’re trying to beef up your link profile for the “machines” (search engines), there are white-hat and paid ways to get links from high-ranking sites. On the white-hat side, building relationships with high-ranking industry sites and becoming a guest contributor is probably the easiest route. In the report above, four of those five links came from personal relationships that we’ve built by attending industry shows and engaging with industry practitioners via social over the years.
The fifth link in that report (Mashable) came by way of our PR firm, who provides us with regular opportunities for contributing native content on large media properties. Utilizing PR firms and such paid tactics as native advertising can go along way to quickly boosting your link profile.
How People See Links: The Trust Factor
Let’s now forget about the machines. A search engine is just a tool that helps people find answers. But do we trust the source? Most of us have probably learned the hard way that you can’t trust everything you read online. Intentional misinformation is everywhere and unfortunately, marketers are among the worst offenders.
Savvy consumers have learned this and will often bypass a brand website and opt for an unbiased review from a third-party web page, or the trusted advice of a social connection. A great example of this for us is a blog post by Michael Brenner, Founder of Marketing Insider Group, titled “How to Make a Content Calendar You’ll Actually Use [Templates Included]“. This single post has sent us hundreds of referral visits in the past year. A well-packaged, helpful article like this creates immediate trust in the reader (and probably helps Michael plant a seed of trust in a future blog subscriber or potential sales prospect).
5 Kinds of Content That Generate Backlinks
There are several types of content you can create to attract those high-quality backlinks. If you use this list as a basis for your content strategy, you’ll soon see other websites giving you that vote of confidence and helping you rank ahead of your competitors.
Now, I’m not saying these content types are easy to make. Creating such content requires a strict work schedule. But at the end of the tunnel, there’s a bright light!
1. List Posts
List posts (sometimes known as “listicles”) will always be a favorite among readers. According to a Backlinko study, list posts get an average of 218% more shares than “how-to” posts. The more social shares you receive, the more visible your posts are. That means the more chances you have of building links.
But why do list posts do so well? According to Quicksprout, there are several reasons:
- They make a specific promise to the reader.
- Readers know that list posts don’t usually take long to read.
- They are easily scannable. List posts usually contain subheaders, so readers can find the information they need just by skimming through them.
- They invoke curiosity. Headlines such as “X Best HR Software Solutions On The Market” create a curiosity gap readers want to fill.
To create a list post, just think of a topic in your niche that will provide value to readers. For example, if you’re running a blog that offers marketing tips, a list post on the best marketing software solutions is a potential idea.
Whitepapers naturally generate backlinks because they provide an in-depth examination of relevant topics. In other words, they are not your typical blog post that many websites publish. They provide content that is so rich they become a valuable resource in that industry. That naturally leads to plenty of organic shares.
Whitepapers also help establish your expertise in your niche. You provide solutions to customers’ pain points based on evidence. Although the idea is to present your product as a solution to the consumer’s problem, you don’t do this directly. A whitepaper persuades based on facts. It is not a sales pitch, and readers should derive value from its contents even if they never buy from you.
Although whitepapers are similar to ebooks, they entail more time and effort. Whitepapers are well-researched and tend to be more technical. They can take weeks or even months to produce. They also often include graphs, pictures, and tables to help readers visualize the data.
To create a whitepaper, Foleon said you need to follow these steps:
- Pick the right topic: Since this is authoritative content, you need to be an expert on the subject you’re writing.
- Define your audience: Make sure you know who you’re writing for to determine the type of language you will use.
- Use a great intro and outro: In the introduction, state the benefit your readers will get from the whitepaper. Provide a summary of your findings at the end.
- Pack it with value: The more detailed the whitepaper is, the better. Provide as much actionable advice as possible.
- Create multiple drafts: Don’t expect your first draft to be your last. Remember, this is an authoritative piece that entails making many revisions until you get everything right.
- Make it enjoyable: Whitepapers are long pieces, but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring. Tell a good story.
The best whitepapers fill an existing content gap. They contribute to the wider conversation on the topic by providing valuable information that no one has shared before.
Text-heavy content isn’t the only type that generates backlinks. Image-heavy content does too, as long as it provides useful information and insights.
Infographics generate backlinks because they take into account the fact that humans are naturally visual creatures. A Wharton School of Business study reported by Search Engine Journal found that 67% of audience members were prompted to act after watching a verbal presentation with visuals. That’s much more than the 50% convinced to take action after hearing a purely verbal one.
Infographics also get more reach than any other type of content. According to Reusser Design, they are liked and shared three times more, which means the chances of generating backlinks are far higher. That’s not surprising. Infographics can digest a lot of information and present it in a visually appealing way. That’s what sets them apart from other types of content.
There is, however, a right way of creating content marketing infographics. To create a “link-winning” infographic, follow these three steps:
- Pick a relevant topic: As with the other content on this list, you need to determine what people are looking for at the moment. Zero in on a topic. The more specific, the better.
- Create an outline: You don’t have to include everything about that topic in your infographic. In fact, you shouldn’t attempt to. Create a content plan that covers the relevant points you want your viewers to know. Your outline should have a logical flow.
- Add images and graphs: Your visuals should support the relevant points in your infographic.
Don’t use language that’s too technical. Your viewers should understand complex concepts easily when looking at your infographic, so the simpler the language, the better. Make your infographic look visually appealing and informative.
Video content can generate backlinks, too. If you put out videos that provide real value, websites may not be the only ones vouching for your content. Giant video platforms such as YouTube may also show your video to more users via search results and users’ “recommended” sections. And when something as big as YouTube vouches for your content, you can expect great SEO benefits.
There are many types of videos that provide value. These can be interviews with authority figures talking about specific topics, “how-to” videos that explain a process, or storytelling videos that are just too engaging to ignore. Be aware of length. According to Animoto, 59.9% will stop watching a video if it’s too long.
So what’s the acceptable video length, then? According to Vidyard, that depends on the platform. Sales videos for cold outreach should be 30 seconds long or less. But the ones that are likely to generate backlinks – homepage videos and landing page videos – should be 30 to 60 seconds long, much like a TV commercial ad.
The more value your video provides, the more likely it will build backlinks.
5. Original Research, Surveys and Reports
What type of content gets a lot of links? Stats! Everyone is looking for stats to give their angle credibility. If you want to get these kinds of links and set your brand up as a thought leader, original research and reports are highly valuable.
Why kind of research should you consider? Whatever matters to your audience and industry, as well as what’s timely. Many companies have been conducting surveys and studies on consumer behavior relating to the pandemic disruption or productivity among those working remotely. These statistics are in high demand, so think about what works for your vertical and then develop a plan to collect data and derive a report from it.
Once it’s published, promote it like crazy, including using paid ads. This will get the attention of other content creators in the world and could result in a rush of links.
In a Nutshell, Create the Best Page
I know “create awesome content” might sound like a cop-out (I mean, duh) but it’s worth mentioning here because there really is nothing that outweighs its importance. Developing a comprehensive and definitive answer for a particular query is the most foolproof way to attract attention and links from people who matter.
To do this, I recommend carefully assessing the top results for a particular SERP, and then trying to develop something better. Incorporate the attributes that vaulted those pages to the top of the rankings, while improving upon them and adding your own distinct spin.
Check if that topic is something people search for on Google. You can use tools such as Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer or Zest to determine the keyword volume.
If people search for those keywords, you have two options: try to rank for those keywords, or find other related keywords so you won’t have to compete against as many websites.
If you go for the first option, check the types of posts that may appear on the topic. Find an edge you can have over those posts. For example, if the posts are short, make yours longer. Make your content more detailed and provide more actionable advice. So, if list posts don’t cut it for your keyword, go for “Why” posts or “How to” posts, but just keep that content coming. The key is to provide value.
Brian Dean of Backlinko refers to this as “skyscraper content” and explains how he put together a high-quality, top-ranking, backlink-attracting post for the term “SEO tools” here.
Ready to Get Linking?
Let’s assume that there are already other web pages out there that are linking to your website. If you’re still in the “link building” phase, then here’s some advice.
- Focus on producing/offering a product or service that people really love.
- Consistently create content that people really love.
- Build a company of people that generate a reputation of authority in a certain niche or industry.
Ok… so we can all agree that these are big asks in and of themselves. But in the real world, these are the prerequisites to having a successful business that A) gets on Google’s radar and B) builds awareness and trust in the minds of not only your potential customers, but also the people who are actively crafting website/blog content and creating those links.
How NOT to Build Backlinks
- Email a bunch of authors you’ve never met, asking them to edit their existing posts and add a link to yours
- Participate in aimless and spammy “link exchanges” or “blog networks”
- Gain placement in random link directories
- Pay for backlinks
- Use any sort of bots or automation to produce links on other sites
Pestering strangers about links is about as effective as cold-calling in sales. And Google is becoming too smart to be gamed by manipulative measures.
So with those no-nos out of the way, let’s run through some… yes-yeses? Anyway, here are the best tactics to optimize your content strategy for building backlinks.
When we started DivvyHQ back in 2011, we benefited greatly by being one of the first, if not THE first, cloud-based editorial calendar applications on the market. We received lots of press, people started checking us out, blogging about us, etc. But first-mover advantage only took us so far. We also benefited (and still do benefit everyday) from designing an application that content managers and producers actually enjoy using every day. And hey! Guess what? When content producers find a tool that they really love, THEY WRITE ABOUT IT!
We’ve also always drunk our own content marketing Kool-aid and created lots of helpful content that industry practitioners love, share and link to on a regular basis. This content comes directly from our resident content marketing experts who, over the last decade, have built a solid, authoritative reputation in the industry.
Bottom line: These attributes create an organic, link-building engine that has allowed us to spend very little on outbound/paid advertising, marketing and sales to date. But enough about us…
Reach Out to Industry Experts, Influencers and the Media
You should build lasting relationships with influencers and experts in your industry — long before you actually want a specific backlink for a content piece. You’ll want to identify influencers and experts early in the strategizing process. While mapping out topic clusters you plan to cover, figure out which (non-competing) blogs and websites tend to spring up near the tops of rankings for related terms. This suggests strong domain authority.
Build relationships with authors from those blogs. Connect on LinkedIn, leave comments on their site, or even send an introductory “Hey I like your stuff” email. Get to know them, and help them get to know you, without any ulterior motive. Once you’ve established a rapport, these folks will be much more open-minded should you reach out and say, “We put together this really in-depth post on earning backlinks, and your readers might enjoy it as an additional resource to follow up your great write-up on link-building.”
No matter what industry you’re in, reporters are covering it for newspapers, magazines, and industry publications. You can use a free tool called Help a Reporter Out (HARO). Think of HARO like LinkedIn but specific to journalists. It connects reporters who need sources to organizations that want more links.
It’s fairly easy to setup. Basically, you can sign up as a “source” in your area of expertise, and then you’ll receive notifications in your inbox when reporters need to feature insights for your industry or niche. Should your perspective get included, it’s an easy way to score a backlink, while also strengthening your brand’s perceived authority in the field. HARO may not be fruitful instantly, but it’s a great long-term strategy to build high-quality links and more exposure for your brand.
Find Broken Links and Offer Yours in Its Place
This technique takes some research, but it can be very successful. Broken links litter the internet for various reasons—new URLs, name changes, companies out of business, etc. When these websites change, they often don’t initiate redirects, so there are probably millions of articles and blogs out there with bad links.
Once you discover an outdated resource relevant to content you have, you can use a backlink checking tool like Ahrefs to find all the sites that link to that defunct URL. You can then evaluate those websites based on their domain authority.
For those with the highest authority, reach out to them and explain that they now have a broken link but that your content is live and ready to fill its place. Sending a screenshot with the message can help.
You are likely to get positive responses from this because high authority sites don’t want to have broken links, and they will want a quick resolution to fix it with your content.
Link Analysis Report
Viewing a list of sites that are referring traffic to your site is very simple. Google Analytics has an off-the-shelf report for that. But there is also a downloadable custom report that gives you even more data to narrow your focus and take action.
The Link Analysis Report for Google Analytics – Download Link
This report is different in that it’s looking at the various source websites that are passing on some link love and then providing engagement metrics, which are typically more telling vs. volume metrics. A quick review of this report tells me the following:
- Top Sources for Goal Completions – I can see that links from Curata and Writtent have generated the most goal completions.
- Top Traffic-Generating Sites – I can see that Writtent links are sending us a ton of traffic regularly. Perhaps we should reach out and see if we can partner with them to do more…?
- Best Traffic Quality – Although links from Britopian.com only resulted in 121 sessions, we had 5 conversions (4.13% conversion rate). That’s way above industry standards. That’s a high-quality, targeted audience for us. We should definitely reach out to Michael Brito and try to do more with him.
Getting More Link Love
It’d be nice if backlinks simply came along on their own, as a result of the hard work you put into creating quality content. And sometimes they do! But taking steps like gaining personal familiarity with the authors behind high-authority sites in your niche, and making yourself available as a source for journalists, will give you that extra edge when it comes to earning those backlinks and carving out powerful pathways to your content.
I can’t stress enough that your focus should NOT be on trying to artificially fabricate links. Your focus should be building a great company, products/services and content that people will love and feel compelled to link to. But you do have some nice reports, tools and strategies at your disposal that can help you identify opportunities and accelerate your efforts. At the end of the day, we have to serve both machines and people. Try to do it the right way and others may just be inclined to spread some love for you.
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