Acquiring backlinks has been, and most likely will continue to be for some time, one of the most important components of SEO. Google uses backlinks to judge popularity, determine quality, and decide what to rank where in its search algorithm. It has been this way since the dawn of Google and continues to be today. However, the truth is, not all backlinks are the same.
The Quality of Links Are Important
The image below from Ahrefs shows the URL rating distribution of a backlink profile for one of the largest book publishers in the United States.
As you can see, the vast majority of these links are within a 0-20 URL rating. If you are trying to build links within this URL rating, you are literally wasting your time and resources. As you can see, there are already around 302,000 backlinks in this category. You don’t want to be just one of the masses. You want to stand out.
In modern day SEO, you want to be acquiring links from websites with high URL ratings, typically a 40 DA or higher. When targeting websites, be sure to check their DA, URL rating, or whatever other ranking system that you use for websites.
Google Uses Links to Judge Popularity
If you think about it, backlinks are a pretty simple concept. Google uses links to judge popularity. Back in the early days of the Internet, if you used information from a website, you had to source that information, similar to sources for an academic research paper.
Since then, Google has never really changed this ranking factor because frankly, it is a good way to judge the quality of the Internet. In fact, Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, said that Google’s backlinks are one of the top two most important ranking signals in Google.
Unfortunately, many SEOs and digital marketers are having a lot of trouble getting quality backlinks. A lot of the link strategies out there don’t work anymore because they have been abused to death.
Many Link Strategies Do Not Work
When many people get in this industry, the first thing they do is try to learn as much as they can about SEO. They find SEO “thought leaders” to learn from, like Brian Dean and others. They learn about link building — they try the skyscraper technique, but no one answers their email blast promoting the skyscraper technique, and they get frustrated and swear off link building. Unfortunately, this tends to happen a lot, but the good news is, it doesn’t have to. Instead, SEOs and digital marketers need to be using strategies that work and not just follow the herd when it comes to link building.
I don’t mean to single Brian Dean out — I am a huge fan and even call myself a Brian Dean disciple. He wrote the book on link building, especially for small brands. We will talk further about small versus big brand link acquisition later, but Brian Dean was the original guy to break through and beat the big brands in link building and ranking websites.
However, Brian Dean wrote that book a few years ago and since then, link building has evolved. Today, everyone is using his methods, such as the skyscraper technique and email blasting people to death, trying to get them to link to them. Guestographic is being pitched to me on a daily basis and to our clients. While his methods do work super well for niches, in a highly competitive field, it can be extremely difficult because everyone is doing it.
Also, Brian Dean is now a big brand and no longer a small scrappy guy in the trenches like the majority of digital marketers and SEOs out there trying to get results for businesses. But that doesn’t mean that we should write off Brian Dean. We can definitely take a lot of his principles and use them to evolve our link building tactics. I still really like this equation he gave on link building, which I found to be very solid:
Content + Outreach + Value = Backlinks
Content and outreach are the easy parts. However, giving value is the hard part. Why should I post your infographic? Is it going to make my blog better and give value to my audience? These are the questions you need to be asking yourself when creating and promoting content.
Difference Between Big Brands and Small Brands
I alluded to this notion in the previous section and for good reason — there is a huge gap between the link acquisition strategies between big and small brands. A big brand would be any company that is a Fortune 1,000 company, or who has a big following. For example, Moz would be considered a big brand.
A small brand is a large or smaller company without the big following or is relatively unknown. An example would be a local SEO company or a digital marketing agency without much online marketing, PR, exposure, and more.
The thing to consider here is that doing link acquisition for these two types of brands is completely different. Content marketing and promotion is the absolute best way to acquire links and doing it for a big brand is much easier than for a smaller brand.
Take this example. Last year, I was invited to do a mobile-focused webinar with Bronto and Addshoppers. In the e-commerce space, these are huge brands that I would want to align our content marketing with.
However, if someone reached out to me to do a comarketing initiative and they have no domain authority, have no email signature, use a @gmail.com email address, or other red flags, what is the likelihood I would want to do a comarketing initiative with them?
Outreach is completely different for large and small brands, as well as how you do content marketing. You want to be able to understand what tactics work with what type of brand you are.
Big Brand Link Acquisition
Big brand link acquisition is a bit of a contradiction — it is easy in one sense and difficult in another. It can be difficult because getting content created and promoted takes much longer with the many hurdles that you must get through. But, once the hurdles are gone, it is easy to get responses, feedback, and collaboration, especially if you are reaching out with the firstname.lastname@example.org email address. People tend to trust bigger brands and want to align themselves with you. So, you want to leverage this and use more tactics which play to your strength.
Here are some top strategies for big brand link acquisition in my professional opinion:
Infographic Creation and Content Promotion
Infographics are still important and impactful in the SEO world. Surprisingly, I honestly thought they would die down over the past two years, but the opposite has happened — they have increased in popularity. However, the old strategy of creating an infographic and posting it on every infographic-related site is no longer a viable linking strategy, which is a good thing.
The main strategy should be to create an infographic that focuses on your customers and target market and what those people want to see or hear. You can also use tools like Ahrefs to look at competitor’s old content (use Top Content) to see what has done well in the past and create similar content in the form of an infographic.
Once you have your topic figured out, you want to do research to find the best statistics and information, then have a content writer write the information. Have it designed by a designer or through a tool like Canva (or Google infographic design software) then you’ll have a finished infographic. Just make sure you focus on quality. If you wouldn’t share it on your personal social media channels, then it isn’t good enough.
Once you have the infographic complete, you can post it on your blog, slideshare, or any similar site. You also need to promote it to different editors or key influencers. There are thousands of ways you can promote your content, a few of which are:
- Email Outreach: This one has the most direct action to an actual backlink. You can use tools like an outreach software, or you can manually promote your content to different content editors. Doing it yourself is the best option if you are limited in resources and cannot access the different items below. Using outreach tools (Google Outreach Software, if you are interested), you can promote your content to editors who have written similar content before. Promoting your infographic to editors that have written similar content gives you a much better chance of getting a link to your site.For instance, my team created a piece, “Why SEO is Difficult for Startups”. Once completed, I promoted it to around 30 blogs which were focused on startup-related content. I Googled “Startup Blog” and found the editor’s email address and then used a simple template to promote it. My template was under 100 words, simple and to the point, but I also customized certain features. If you rinse and repeat this process and if you use software to help with prospecting and email outreach, then you can reach more. As a big brand, it might make sense to do larger email numbers and less customization because of your brand name.If you remember my previous note, you have to make sure you are adding value to a site. You need to target specific sites which will get more value to their site by adding the infographic. By targeting only a small number of relevant startup sites, I can add value to their site with my infographic because they can post it and share it with their following. It also helps if the infographic is not branded in your colors or with your logo. Lastly, if they take it, be sure to write them a 150-word introduction and source it back (include a link) to the infographic on your site.
- Social Media Marketing and Advertising: This is where you can promote your content directly to your social media following. Don’t be afraid to use the advertising tools from Facebook and Twitter to really drive promotion and engagement. I would suggest sharing a part of the infographic in your social media post or ad, then having them visit your blog for the full piece. If you do use the advertising tools, make sure you are targeting consumers who are interested in your content.
- Newsletter: Through your newsletter, you can promote your content to your subscriber base, or media list if you have one.
- Display Advertising: Using tools like the AdWords Display network, retargeting campaigns, or even Outerbrain, you can promote your content on a CPC basis. This works well for companies who have larger budgets and “less content, more promotion” mindsets. This is the most expensive route, but it can be very effective as long as you target specific audiences who you know will be interested in the content.
You might be thinking, “But Ron, what good will my social media channels, display, or newsletter do for actually getting backlinks?” The days of just asking people to link to you are long gone. However, if your content is popular and people find it through various channels — social media, newsletter, your display network — they will much more likely to link back to it.
Take this example. An old project we worked on had an infamous content piece that has been ranked in Google for three years now for the keyword “unhealthiest foods.” The author bluntly says that she found it on Facebook. Now they have a good link back to their content, which is helping them rank highly. And, this all was done back in 2014.
Gifographic Creation & Promotion
By using the same tactics as above, you can also create Gifographics. Recently, our company started creating gifographics and using them at the end of our blogs. We also supply a short code with it, so that others can copy and paste it onto their website. We do this so that if someone wants to add value to their site by taking this short piece of content, they can. It also automatically links back to our blog and gives us credit for it. Here is an example:
You can also use gifographics as standalone blog posts then use the same promotion strategy above.
- Email Outreach: Use the same tactics outlined above.
- Social Media Marketing and Advertising: Use the same tactics outlined above but make sure you have a cool GIF section for advertising.
- Newsletter: Same tactics here. You can include part of the GIF in the newsletter though.
- Display Advertising: Same tactics here.
You can also include the code in the promotion to easily load it on your target’s website with the link to your site to give you credit. Just to be frank, this may be difficult for a lot of SMBs out there, so this tactic is usually more relevant in more tech-savvy fields. If you are expecting a bunch of local law firms to post a gifographic, you might be in for a rude awakening (no offense to any lawyer reading this). However, if you are promoting it to a bunch of blogs who produce content, it is a very relevant tactic which can work.
Long-form Content Creation & Promotion
Let’s go back to the section on why link strategies don’t work. It is usually from no one caring about the content or the outreach email presented to them. However, with big brands, this is not a problem. If I get an email from email@example.com, I am answering and doing whatever they ask. It is Red Bull. Why wouldn’t I?
So, as a big brand (although not as big as Red Bull), you want to use this to your advantage. We could talk all day about content creation, but my rule of thumb is content should pass two criteria before it is published:
- Would you share it on your personal social media channels? If not, go back to the post and make it better.
- Search the main keyword phrase this post would rank for. Is it better content that the top three rankings? If not, go back to the post and make it better.
Once you pass those two key criteria, you can move on to these four promotion strategies:
- Email Outreach: Here, the email template is key. Generally saying, “Hey look at my content” is not adding value to anyone unless they want to align with your brand. That is why we attach infographics or gifographics with our content to get links. It is our way to add value. With content, getting the value part is much more different.Obviously, how you add value through content is different on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, in your outreach templates, you can try to see if they are willing to allow you to write an editorial post which mentions your content. This way, they get unique content, but that isn’t the most scalable. Sometimes, you can see if they would like content like this more often and add them to your newsletter and build a relationship. Not all link acquisitions will happen on the first email. Many times, it takes a long time to happen.Depending on your content and brand, when you are performing email outreach the value you are providing for them is to be aligned with your brand and content. If I am Red Bull emailing a smaller blog and telling them about the latest blog we wrote, there is a pretty good chance they will share it on their social media channels or even link to it in the future. However, if I am “Blue Drink, LLC” I have a much lower (almost none) chance of getting any backlinks or social media shares.
- Social Media Marketing & Advertising: Same tactics as the infographic and gifographic method.
- Newsletter: Same tactics as the infographic and gifographic method.
- Display Advertising: Same tactics as the infographic and gifographic method.
Long-form content is king in SEO. But promoting it takes some cleverness and a lot of hard work!
Small Brand Link Acquisition
Being a smaller brand, like our previous example of “Blue Drink, LLC” has its pros and cons. It is easier to deploy content and promotion (less approvals needed), but you do not have the big brand name to get better responses and opportunities.
To combat this, small brands need their link acquisition to be thought leadership in nature, because you have a small brand and no one knows you. They don’t care to align themselves with you.
However, you cannot be a thought leader in a big space like “Entrepreneurship.” You want to be a thought leader in a smaller niche and build your way up. My personal example is within e-commerce SEO. I started there and have worked my up into e-commerce marketing. Now my agency and ourselves are writing content on e-commerce marketing tips and tactics.
One warning: Don’t niche yourself too shallow that there are not many places to build relationships with. In our case, we realized no one cared about e-commerce SEM, so we switched our focus to e-commerce marketing because the pool is so much bigger.
Make sure you pick a niche that is specific, but not so specific that no one cares about the content. Once you have your niche, here are some link acquisition strategies which can help to move the needle.
Podcasts can be a powerful tool because they can provide a relevant link which goes back to your website, and usually, they receive a ton of social media shares!
Last year, I was part of a podcast where I discussed my agency and how we were growing it (a secondary focus of mine). Using this content focus of growing a marketing agency, someone reached out to me about discussing it on their podcast. They then shared it to all of their followers. This is a perfect tactic if you are working for a company that wants to be promoted as a thought leader.
This is a pretty easy tactic to do. Write down your focus, a couple of topics that you could cover, and then Google this combination (Podcast + [Keyword Focus]). If your focus is growing a digital marketing agency, you would want to Google “Podcast Growing Agency.” This should give you a good list of podcasts that are focused on your niche.
Once you have that list, you can cold email them and pitch them your idea of a podcast. If applicable, you could also send some examples of previous podcasts you have done.
If it is a very notable podcast that you are reaching out to, mostly likely, they won’t just take anyone off the street. You need to provide credibility in the form of your social media following, success, or past podcasts that you have been on. You could also try building a relationship with them via social media and then pitching them your idea.
Overall, podcasts are a growing medium and can be a great way to acquire links and build your brand. And as a small company, working on growing your brand is just as important as acquiring links.
Content Mentions (HARO)
Help A Reporter Out, or HARO, can be a great way to get highly credible links from within big publications. So, why doesn’t everyone do this? It sounds too good to be true.
Well, there are a few dependencies:
- You need reporters who need you.
- You need to be in niches without a lot of competition.
If you are in SEO, well, good luck!
If you are not in SEO, you might be able to have good success here every once in a while. Make sure that you sign up for HARO news alerts and email the reporters if you think you can provide value. Just be sure to ask them if they need your help and get them to commit to you providing information for their article before you start writing away. You wouldn’t want to write a whole article and then they say, “No thanks, I have someone already.” That is a complete waste of time and resources. Also, when you pitch yourself, be sure you add some credibility in the email, like previous work you have done.
- Don’t get upset if you don’t get any backlinks. It is nothing to get frustrated over.
- This can also happen naturally as you work on building your brand. For example, the other day, someone was referred to me from Internet Retailer’s Head Editor, which is the “leader publication” in the e-commerce world (my opinion). This was absolutely amazing to see because the head editor for Internet Retailer liked my content so much he referred me to a writer to be included in the piece about e-commerce SEO.
When you are a thought leader in a specific niche, the links will come. It might take a while, but they will come. Just be patient.
Editorial Content (Guest Blogging)
Guest blogging, or what I like to call editorial content, is the longest but best way to build high-quality organic inbound links. There is absolutely nothing that beats it! With guest blogging, you write content for other publications that get posted and shared all over social media. This is great to help build your brand.
I could write a whole other article just on how to write editorial content, but I’ll try to condense it. The best way that you can do this is, once you have your thought leadership niche, approach websites about writing content for them. You want to start small — you cannot write for major publications right off the bat. Once you write for smaller publications, you can work your way up the industry, become a better thought leader, and get compelling content featured on other websites.
One good tactic you can also use is asking for feedback. When you are promoting your long-form content to different content editors, instead of using a skyscraper technique and saying, “Look at my amazing content that is better than what you linked to two years ago, you should link to it,” you can say, “Look at my amazing content. I was wondering if you could give me feedback on it.” Then, if someone gives you feedback or they say they like it, you can pitch writing similar content on their website.
Or you can work your way up the food chain — either way works. Just don’t be mad when you get “rel=nofollow” links. These are part of SEO life and are fine for your backlink profile. It happens and it doesn’t mean that you should stop contributing there. Google is really good at understanding popular sites and non-popular sites.
Using comarketing to acquire links may be one of the hottest brand building and link acquisition tactics. It can kill a lot of birds with just one stone, and it provides relevant links, which is obviously one of the best parts. Develop a list of companies within your “sphere of influence,” reach out to them, and pitch a comarketing initiative, which could be a joint blog post, whitepaper, guide, or webinar. Deciding who is in your sphere of influence is generally those companies who share the same target market as you. For me, it is anyone that is in the e-commerce marketing sphere.
Local PR Initiatives
If you are a local business or work for a local business, using local PR is a great way to get local links. You can search for combinations like “[City Name] + Magazine” or get local publications and try to pitch them content similar to editorial content. These local publications can give you links and will hopefully bring customers to your site, which is a “win-win” situation.
A local online blog in my area, Atlanta, featured an article giving startups tips on their taxes. This is a great example of a local company building a relationship with a local publication and getting a link from them.
You can use this same model for large local publications or smaller publications. Provide relevant and topical content for these publications.
Skyscraper Content & Personalization
If you are using the skyscraper model and it works for you, then just disregard this section. If you are banging your head against the wall, stop and see if these items could help you be more successful:
- Use personalized emails. Don’t use a template. Send emails one by one and do this a hundred times.
- Use less than 100 words in the email. Here is a template that I used. I try to make it seem like I wrote it as quickly as possible.
- Send them value. Try adding an infographic or if you are fancy, a gifographic.
- Follow them on social media ahead of time and make them notice you.
- Make sure you target the right people. Using my example above, I sent that to websites who had an article about BigCommerce SEO. It doesn’t get more relevant than that.
Just a few items to note:
Don’t Get Mad If They Do Not Link
Could someone remove the link in my gifographic? Take the content without linking? Sure, it’ll happen but do not fret. Just focus on the method and the links will come.
If Promotion Isn’t Working
Make sure who you are promoting to is relevant to the content itself. If no one is picking up your content, then maybe the content isn’t the best or what they are looking for. Not every post you write or promote will be a home run. Don’t fret over not getting 1,000 backlinks for every post that you do. In fact, I have seen around 20% of posts that generally end up being successful. In SEO, it may even take years before your content ranks high in Google and gets the links and social media shares you desire.
In short, be patient and realize that sometimes, content creation and promotion is like throwing spaghetti onto a wall and seeing what sticks. Once something sticks, you can follow more templates and similar strategies to what works.
I hope you enjoyed this. If you have any to add feel free to tweet at me or email me.
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!