3 Scalable Link Building Tactics That Won’t Leave a Footprint

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(and No, “Content Marketing” Isn’t One of Them)

Link building is a problem. And it’s more of a problem now than ever, because it requires real humans with real brains in their heads, having real ideas, and really implementing those ideas. The days of submitting to a few directories, getting a few paid links, dropping some comment links, and then ranking for the keywords you’re targeting are gone. Of course, as agencies, we still need to deliver results for our clients, and stay within their budget. So how do we do that?

In a recent interview with Jon Cooper, Jon gives a realistic answer to a question about safeguarding against a link penalty from Google:

How do you safeguard your link-building efforts from possible Penguin penalties?

Don’t leave a footprint. Penalties detect patterns. If you don’t have one, no matter what might seem “black hat” or “against Google guidelines,” they really can’t get you for anything.

This begs the question: How do we ensure that our link building isn’t leaving a nasty footprint that will leave the site open to manual or filter link penalties, while still practicing techniques that can be scaled? I have some answers!

Here are three link building tactics that our team uses in-tandem to ensure that we are producing results within budget, and that we are avoiding those big ugly link footprints.

Broken Link Building

What it is:

The idea here is simple, and most SEJ readers have almost certainly read about this tactic. Essentially what we are doing is:

First: Finding pages on the Web that link to sites like ours.

Second: Finding broken links on those pages.

Third: Telling the webmaster about the broken links (because we are good-hearted people with no self interest whatsoever).

Last: Kindly suggesting that a link to our site be added to the page because our content is relevant and their users will find it endlessly useful.

How to scale it:

Much has been written on scaling broken link building by some great link builders like Paddy Moogan, Kristi Hines, and Anthony Nelson, but here, I want to talk about it from the perspective of a strategist directing a team on this process—my perspective. Here is what I would do to ensure that the broken link building my team is doing is as efficient as possible:

1. Determine the niche you want to target.

I have a client who sells Flexible PVC Pipes, and one of the varieties of pipes he sells are pond tubing, which can be used for maintenance of water gardens. Guess what? There are TONS of sites and forums where people who freakin’ love water gardens hang out. Let’s get links there.

2. Determine search queries to find pages linking to other pages in those niches:

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3. Have your team record those pages, and track the opportunities using Buzzstream.

4. Perform outreach using a template created in Buzzstream.

This process is repeatable, effective, and requires little to no creativity or thought from the link builder. In other words, this is a great way to scale broken link building.

Guest Posting (Yes, Guest Posting)

What it is:

You know the drill:

  • Write a cool/interesting/funny/useful blog post, and get someone else to post it on their blog.
  • Drop a link to your site in the post.

How to scale it:

Guest posting is still a good way to get a link, despite what Matt Cutts says about Google cracking down on it. As with all link building tactics, if you’re focusing on targeting site’s that people actually read, and not crap article dump sites, you’ll get some fine links. Here is how my team scales guest posting:

1. Link builders are a lazy breed—take advantage of that.

Lord knows if a process can be automated, a link builder will automate it.  So why would a link builder writing guest posts all day, every day bother switching up his author byline?

2. Evaluate the link profile of a competitor who is doing good guest post link building.

Using your link profiler of choice, search a competitor and find his best guest post link.

3. Get the byline.

When you find a good one, copy his byline:

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4. Google search the byline.

Slap some parenthesis around it, and search it:

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5. Shazam! Guest post opportunities … lots of them!

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6. Write and Outreach.

There are a number of tools you can use to scale outreach. Some recommendations are Buzzstream (not free), Tout App for GMail (free), and Boomerang for GMail (free). All of these tools allow you to essentially create templates and send messages at the optimum time. Here are a couple of my favorite posts on good outreach:

*The byline idea is Paddy Moogan’s from Mozcon 2012.

Comment Marketing

How to do it:

Disclaimer: This tactic will by no means push your site over the top for any highly competitive keywords, as most of these links will be no-followed. The idea is to drop links to your site in front of already engaged audiences, and give insightful contributions which establish you as an authority among those audiences. Any ranking benefit from dropping links (which I personally have seen time and time again) is a bonus.

Mr. Fishkin has a good Whiteboard Friday expanding more on the extent of the value of this type of marketing, but here I am talking about its value in terms of being a scalable link building method.

I have found that a lot of clients are quite interested (perhaps too interested) in seeing reports that show that a whole bunch of links are being built (I guess, as a metric to justify their investment…). Comment marketing is a great way to get lots of links quickly. The concept is simple:

  1. Read a blog post.
  2. React to that post in the form of a comment.
  3. Drop a link in the “Website” or “URL” field.

Despite the fact that most comment links are marked as no-follow, I have personally seen evidence time after time that these links actually do pass some sort of ranking influence. Best of all, they are quick, free, and scalable.

How to scale it:

1. Perform a simple Google search like “top [vertical] blogs.”

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2. Check out one of the already compiled lists (which you will almost certainly find for most verticals) like this one.

3. Collect the URLs of 20 or so of these blogs. These blogs should have the following properties:

  • They should accept comments (just check out some individual posts and ensure that some of them have comments posted).
  • They should have a field to drop a link.


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  • They should allow comments to be indexed.

To check this, just copy a chunk of text from a comment on a given post, throw it in parenthesis, and Google search it.

Grab a sentence:

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Search it:

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If the site appears, you’re good to go.

4. Throw those URLs in a spreadsheet, and drop a comment on 1 post from each per day. In a month or so, you have 20 new links, from 20 domains, plus you have put your site in front of thousands of readers who are already interested in topics related to your business.

Anyone who has ever been expected to achieve link building wins in 2013, while working within a tight budget, will understand that the ability to scale link building efforts without leaving a big, ugly, dangerous link footprint is critical. Hopefully these tips will help you do just that.

At this time, I ask that you please do some comment marketing, and give me your two cents in the comments section below.

Author Bio: Matt is a SEO Strategist with Ethical SEO Consulting. He LOVES building links, like the one he dropped in this very author bio. If you want to get a hold of Matt for any non-criminal reason, you can contact him through his blog, DM him on Twitter @MChuckGreen, or chat him up on Google+.

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / -AnnA-

Matt Green
Hi, I'm Matt. I like to help businesses wade through the often stormy sea that is digital marketing. If you liked the words I wrote... Read Full Bio
Matt Green
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  • Matt,

    One of the more real and useful articles on the subject that I have read in a long time. I loved your opening line, “Link building is a problem. And it’s more of a problem now than ever, because it requires real humans with real brains in their heads, having real ideas, and really implementing those ideas. ” as it completely reflects the reality of link building today. I think most competent SEO’s have locked on this, but an awful lot of customers are still lagging in the , “go buy me 5000 links” days of yore. It is ironic that link building in the age of “relevance” is more labor intensive than ever before.

    One topic I would love to hear more on is the “rate” at which links can be added without creating that “foot print” you referenced.

    Thanks for a good read!


    • Matt Green

      What you’re talking about is called link velocity. To the best of my knowledge, there are few ,if any, manual efforts that could produce enough links to trigger any kind velocity penalty. If you’re using bots and adding tens of thousands of links overnight, this type of trigger may be a concern. So don’t do that :).

  • This is a really useful post. All the things you mentioned are very white hat. I really like where you mentioned copying the byline. Never heard or thought of doing that, but seems like a very useful thing especially with competitors.


  • Great explanation on comment marketing. I get frustrated by “SEO’s” who just stuff keywords into comments and end up with comments that make absolutely no sense. I think you’ve given a suggestion that makes it possible to use the comment marketing tactic and do it in a meaningful way. NO MORE SPAM!!

  • Thanks, Matt! I’ve been using the comment marketing strategy for a client since December, but constantly get questioned on its value since most (if not all) of these links will be no-follow. My argument is always that an original, thoughtful comment is bound to draw interested parties to the website, which is the real end goal of link building in the first place (high SERP placement = draw traffic). If I can draw even a small amount of traffic *and* generate links at the same time, that’s killing two birds with one stone.

  • This is a really helpful post. We are always looking for opportunities to post our blogs on other sites. I never thought about Googling our competitors byline. It will be useful to see where they are getting their blogs posted to see if we can do the same.

    Brittanie (chatmeter)

  • Cheers Matt for sharing these excellent tips. Regarding comment marketing, I hear many seos and link builders broadly disregarding this strategy and labelling it contemptuously as “spam”, or worthless because the comments are mostly nofollow.

    Thanks for reminding us that there can be value in commenting on relevant blogs, as the comment then exposes your brand to a relevant audience, not to mention the traffic that can result from a thoughtful comment.

  • One of the better articles. I like the byline idea. But I think Google can see that too when they scale. If there are too many guest posts, even if great content, it may turn off Google. But a few posts per site should good.

  • Brian Calsyn


    Great “how to” article and especially liked the scalable advise. All three are valuable and this detailed instruction leaves only implementation with skill. PSA is in the healthcare search and recruitment business and having a presence at medical and healthcare sites through comments, guest posting and links from link repair is a great way to drive ranking for us. Good job.

    Brian Calsyn
    PSA, Inc.

  • Joel Turner

    Hi Matt,

    Great post – thanks for sharing. And thanks for referencing the interview we did with Jon Cooper on the ionSearch conference website. Cheers

  • Great post. I hadn’t known how to check if links would or not be indexed when commenting on blogs. I just used this as an example, found a sentence in Google so I’m commenting!

    Broken link building is also a new one on me.

    Basically, I’ve learned a couple of new things here so thanks for the useful article, Matt.

  • Ryan Gibson

    Good advice. You’re totally right re Comment marketing. I’ve been analysing a few blogs recently which have done zero link building and the majority of their links are no follow comment links (reputable comments mind). They still seem to have a really strong presence within the serps and your post echos this.

    Thanks for writing. Appreciated.

  • Matt, Excellent article with practical and highly useful information about link building. I especially like the comments idea! Now I’m off to follow you on Twitter. Thanks. Cara

  • Matt, these link building tips are great, but I am curious as to how you get the most success for your outreach with buzzstream? Do you connect with the webmaster or author of the blog through social media as well as reaching out using buzzstream?

    What have you had the most success with outreach? Since the first two link building tactics are really heavily dependent on having a response from the webmaster, what should I expect to see with outreach efforts and my replys back?

    • Matt Green

      Buzzstream gives you all of that contact information in one place (email, social, phone number, etc.) and then it is up to you determine what method of outreach will produce the best conversion rate for your goals. I’ve linked to some great resources in the post for making your outreach as effective as possible.

  • Am I the only one who thinks the sites the attorney has links on on spammy, off topics sites? Is that not what Matt was warning about? How can a good article on a crummy, non targeted site add value unless the links are no follow?

  • Great techniques and thanks for mentioning my broken link post! 🙂

    • Matt Green

      Of course 🙂

  • Jon Davies

    A very helpful article for those struggling to build links into websites (and maybe don’t enjoy it as much as Matthew clearly does).

    I would be interested in your view on the value of a “no follow” link versus a normal link. i.e. is a nofollow 10% or 50% of a normal link?

  • Tom

    Hi Matt,

    Perhaps one day you could discuss the rate at which back links can safely be generated without the Google hammer coming down on your website. I still see websites buying a lot of high value back links to get their website ranked.

    Although the days of getting a back link from the link farms is gone, people can still buy lots of back links (good quality) and get results. But what I want to know is the “rate” at which all of those back links where put made live on the internet. Certainly if a ton of back links where “dumped” on the internet all pointing to your website Google would still penalize it. Hence, the question: How many back links over what period of time?

  • Brad Knutson

    There are some great tips in this article, but I’m most interested in the broken link building technique. Being the webmaster for several sites, I’ve seen some pretty clever attempts to get me to post a link to an external site. SEO consultants will disguise themselves as regular, niave people, who at no benefit of their own want to notify you of a broken link. You can’t blame them for trying…but I chuckle every time I get an email from some unassuming “school teacher or gardener notifying me of a broken link and offering a comparable link in exchange.

    I do have a question. Do you have any modifications of the broken link building technique for Local SEO? In searching for some geographic keywords, I’m not finding many (someones zero!) opportunities to even find broken links in the first place. Should I broaden my search range?

  • Thanks for the insight of that seo people are doing today.
    Personally we outsourced all of that work to a firm, however there is no way to know if they are on top of their game if I don’t know the game which is being played.
    thank you!

  • Thanks for a good piece. Link building is getting out of hand. one of our freelance writers works for GroupHigh and I just feel the cost is too high for anyone unless they are a decent sized agency. Personally, I use InkyBee at the moment, but I’m going to check out buzzstream and see what they have to offer.

    Again, thanks for the post.

  • Sorry to be one of those annoying pedantic people everyone hates, but you used the word parenthesis twice and your images showed quotation marks. A parenthesis is a single bracket (parentheses plural), not ” “.

    The tip about finding people open to guest posts was nifty, but having been on the receiving end of 8 “you have a broken link..” emails in one day (my site is about 12 years old, of course it has broken links!) I’ll be steering clear of that one.

  • Great list Matthew, but I think you forget an important note. In order not to leave a big ugly footprint, the link builder should mix the methods you mention and add few others. Using just one or two of those methods for link building campaigns will definitely be a footprint on it’s own 🙂

  • Thanks for the ideas! Always great to find new ways to work. Appreciated!
    It is true that the automated link building and article spinning methods are not as effective as before and in some cases directly dangerous for a website. However, I find that this article and many other SEO experts are too categorical in their statements. Google has not stopped giving value to directories, paid articles etc. The value may be less, but it is not gone.
    To make good SEO one must blend in all known methods – except obvious black hat tricks. It is important not to be too narrowminded but to create great content while thinking into the strategy that one is to use many ways of building links and SEO value. Social media was not mentioned in the article, and I think no serious SEO expert will deny its rising SEO value.

  • The “broken link marketing” is incredibly tough to accomplish in smaller niche’s though. There’s no feasible way to just reach out and find a ton of broken links on your subject. I see value in it – it’s just hard to scale it.

    Aside from that though, great post.

  • Although the days of adding several thousand links overnight are thankfully long gone, don’t we all meet potential clients who believe that this is still the way to go.
    I’ve noticed a number of comments wanting to know how many links, how quickly is likely to get you penalised. Well I suppose that there is not a hard and fast rule, but if what you are doing is essentially real-world and manual you are very unlikely to get penalised.

  • Matt, I stumbled onto your site, followed one article to the next and got lost! I didn’t know how much I don’t know about SEO, link building, broken links, etc., until I dove into your content. Thanks for sharing. I bookmarked SEJ as a great reference for web advice!

  • Debbie Bannister

    Some helpful tips but the broken link building sounds like so much work that the average SEO business person does not have enough time in a day to include that part. What bothers me about the whole SEO building business is how Google continuously take steps to knock so many people out of business. I mean really, how do they expect to stay in business when they are booting others out of making money. The process of building backlinks is becoming more and more convoluted that it’s going to get to the point where people will become totally disgusted with even using the internet. But that figures. It’s always the case that the one-percent will try to make life miserable for the rest. Google needs to work with SEO business people not against them.

  • Charlie Livingston

    Broken link building would only seem to work to me if you have a website that offers some kind of resource on a big subject. If you’re running an affiliate site in a relatively small niche, like I am, then broken link building would seem to be out. The other two tactics are sound, though, so thanks.

  • Sean Maki

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the article, picked up a few extra nuggets from your post today. Scaling manual link building efforts for search engine optimization can be challenging, but using footprints to efficiently find opportunities is one of the best tactics for a variety of methods. I’d recommend any SEO who hasn’t, to familiarize themselves with using footprints.

  • Phil

    Thanks Matt, I’ve been looking for non-spammy ways to get more links for some of my clients. Many of them are indifferent to the importance of doing so, but not to their SERPs position. They are, of course, impervious to explanations of Google personalisation in that regard!

    Some of this gentle linking under the radar ought to pan out nicely, particularly in the limited verticals of New Zealand.

    Thank you

  • Excellent article. Other methods are forum marketing, Q and A sites, Niche directories and message boards.