If you have a website that you want to rank prominently for highly competitive topics and terms, effective link building can make that process quicker, more effective, and support long-term organic success.
In fact, links are one of the three most important ranking factors on Google. That’s why, to this day, people try to build as many links as possible. But to do so, many have turned to low-quality, spammy, and ill-informed link building techniques. Google doesn’t like this.
Rather than trying to cheat the system and risk being penalized by Google with “cheap and easy” tactics, you should take a strategic approach to link building. This guide will introduce you to a model that you can apply to your link building strategy heading forward.
How to Think About Link Building
The end goal of link building is not creating links!
Links are a means to create associations from one relevant, non-competing topical authority to another. Links can help users’ informational and transactional journeys, making it easy to refer users to websites and ultimately pass earned authority between online entities.
A link, in its most basic form, is a signal of trust from one website (most commonly a website but links can come from all types of online entities) to another, based on relevant audiences and perceived value derived from sharing that audience.
Links help fuel brand awareness and place the business/brand/experts/key staff in front of relevant audiences, and enable them to engage with you with a click or a tap.
When you create audience-specific linking within niches that help your audience get to the desired end result (for example, removing informational barriers to conversions by providing access to external expertise), you add value that exceeds single business provision, and start to create a broader network of trust, support, and authority that your audience and your business can leverage.
Links facilitate the journey from a to n (n being any end result), speed up typical user journeys to goal completion, and provide supplemental website performance gains including referral traffic and ranking boosts.
Link Building Strategy: The SOSTAC Approach
SOSTAC is a fundamental marketing approach that focuses on the planning stages of driving business results forward. The SOSTAC framework can be used in almost any environment, and stands for:
- S = Situation/situational analysis: What is the current situation we are in?
- O = Objective(s): What is the goal? Where do we want to get to?
- S = Strategy: How are we going to achieve our goal? (top-level summary statement)
- T = Tactic: What are the specific items in our approach to delivering the strategy?
- A = Action: An action plan which details the granular aspects of the tactics. (who/what/where/when/how much time, etc.)
- C = Control(s): Did we achieve what we set out to? How do we measure success? (metrics and measurements)
Let’s go through each of the above and apply the SOSTAC model to link building.
This establishes the current backlink situation and answers questions like:
- How many backlinks do we currently have?
- What domains are backlinks coming from?
- How many links does our website gain on an average month?
- What is our current domain authority/rating?
- How many backlinks do we have from trusted sites (e.g., .gov, .edu)?
- How does our backlink profile and domain authority compare to our direct/main competition?
The situation analysis provides an overview of opportunities and threats, plus benchmarks which can inform and shape objectives. It can often help to think of the situation stage of the SOSTAC model as a traditional SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats).
What do we want to achieve through link building? Where do we want to get to?
Objectives need to be SMART (specific, measurable, agreed to by all parties, realistic, and time-based). This ensures they are useful for the link building project and enable effective measurement of success achieved.
Common link building overarching objectives can include the following:
- Increasing referral traffic.
- Increasing organic ranking on a specific topic.
- Getting better location results.
- Getting more brand visibility and traffic.
- Gaining ground on identified competitors.
Now we need to turn the above broader goals into SMART objectives. Here is an example:
Increasing referral traffic.
To increase referral traffic to the website through targeted link building by 25 percent by September 30, 2017 (end of Q3).
The main question you need to be asking at this stage is: “How are we going to deliver on our link building objective?”
A strategy needs to be a concise statement of directional intent. Continuing from our SMART objective in the prior section, an example strategy is:
Create engaging and naturally linkable content based on audience needs and gaps within the online niche. Promote this new content (paid and non-paid promotion) to non-competing, audience relevant websites and through social media to encourage referral traffic back to the website.
Tactics & Actions
What specific tactics will be deployed to effectively deliver on the strategy, and what is the action plan for delivering them?
In relation to the above strategy, tactics could include:
- Identifying gaps within the current content which reflect audience needs and creating linkable content to fulfill these needs.
- Deciding who are the core influencer websites to promote the content to, and promote the content.
- Identifying social media influencers and existing evangelists to target for social sharing and engage with them.
- Create paid marketing campaigns for content promotion including remarketing and paid social promotions — these will be activated after content creation.
- Identify and engage with people, forums, and active communities interested on the content topics.
Turning tactics into actions is the stage in which you remove the questions and create an action plan.
Common action plans cover:
- Who is completing the task and when?
- How long will the task take?
- What processes need to be followed?
If we apply this to an example tactic above (in this case, “identifying gaps within the current content which reflect audience needs and creating linkable content to fulfill these needs”), a tactic and action become:
Lee Wilson to identify three gaps within the current content which reflect audience needs by April 30 and provide three content briefs to Jenny in the content team for creating linkable content to fulfill these needs by May 15 (deadline for content delivery = Content Item 1: June 30; Content Item 2: July 25; Content Item 3: August 29).
By applying an action plan, tactics are broken down into specific actions, deadlines and resource needs are specified, and the project team has full visibility and understanding on who is doing what.
Controls are used to measure performance and progress. Without controls in place, it’s impossible to assess the success of your link building project and refine, repeat, and reapply this to other future projects.
Returning to our example objective once again, we can put together key performance indicators (controls) like:
- Referral traffic (benchmark for previous year was 1,250 referral visits).
- New backlinks from identified target websites (benchmark 0 as all new target sites).
- Total number of followed backlinks (benchmark from latest month was 1,234 followed backlinks).
- Total number of followed referring domains (benchmark from latest month was 356 followed referring domains).
Broader link building metrics can often include:
- Number of backlinks with a domain authority above x (e.g., 40).
- Number of links from specific backlink types (e.g., 10 links from .edu and .gov domains)..
- Number of links with a domain relevance over 5 (assigning a subjective relevancy value 1-10 based on core features of a relevant website).
- Number of new followed links.
- Target percentage for specific link types (e.g., 20 percent of backlinks to come from content placement on external websites such as social, citation/directory, content placement, etc.).
- Increase referral traffic by 25 percent through new backlinks built.
7 More Effective Link Building Tactics
Here are seven tactics to broaden your link building opportunities and fuel creative link acquisition approaches.
1. Link Acquisition Starts With Great Content Creation
The ultimate goal of building links is not to need to manually build links. Through effective content creation, providing audience value with industry-leading content, and ensuring this is seen and ideally promoted by the right influencers in your market, you can gather far more genuine links and associated gains. This is also the best, fully scalable long-term approach to link building.
2. Maximize Existing Brand Mentions
There are always quick link wins, and people talking about you, your company, and key staff can be leveraged through direct linking. As an example, you can use search parameters in Google using the –inurl parameter to exclude any references to your own website.
- -inurl:http://www.example.com/ “company name” in practice:
You can also refine this to a pertinent topic tied to a brand.
- -inurl:http://www.example.com/ “company name” “topic/service” in practice:
3. Technical Link Building
Whenever you change website URLs, remove content or complete other associated website updates like redesigns and hierarchy changes, you risk losing links that you may have worked hard to achieve in the first place. A number of tools can help you identify broken backlinks, including Ahrefs.
Unless you have access to a deep data marketing platform that combines all link data into a single resource, you will likely need to use three or four link discovery tools (e.g., Open Site Explorer, Majestic), de-duplicate the Excel exports, and prioritize the sites you approach based on perceived link value (tied to objectives), relevance, and authority.
4. Creating Content Hubs
When you create authoritative content hubs (these can be tied to location, servicing audience problems, expert sharing resources, and more) and provide them for free, you encourage brand awareness, buzz, social PR, and associated wins including links.
The more creative and value-based the approach used, the greater and more likely the success. When you adopt a value-based emphasis towards creating links as a byproduct to value, you are investing in much more than external links and building something of genuine differentiation and purpose.
5. Problem Solving and Social PR
Links are often a useful and necessary way to answer people’s questions, solve their problems, and showcase your expertise.
Social media forums like Quora are great for sharing knowledge and being a positive point of expertise within your niche. Often this information sharing will include building links to your own website resources.
6. Updating Content That Works
Most websites have hidden link building gems — posts that captured a lot of comments, social shares, visits, and backlinks. These may be guides, whitepapers, or other content articles that can be refreshed, updated, and expanded on to include new insights.
Through updating successful content, promoting this to known evangelists of the original content, and pushing it out to your audience, you will turn single success items into long-term, evergreen content top performers.
7. Changing Content Types
If you have text-based content that performs well, look into alternative ways to display and showcase that content. By adding explainer videos, presentations, and more visual representations of research and textual data to your content offering, you can appeal to new audiences and reflect preferences for information digestion (as many people are more visual).
Think about your higher level objectives and why you want to build links. This will help with expanding the value of your link building projects and provide focus on genuine business results over isolated link numbers.
Look at applying a SOSTAC approach to link building and include some of the more creative ways to generate new links as a byproduct of a value-based content offering.
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