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Successful Link Building Requires More Than Links

Here's how three pillars of SEO – keyword research, content development, and on-page optimization – help you be better prepared to effectively earn links.

As an SEO professional, there might not be a better feeling than seeing a backlink to your site published on a high authority website, particularly when that link is the result of your manual outreach efforts.

The reason securing backlinks is so satisfying is because so much goes into successful link building.

In fact, most of the work that drives link building results happens long before any outreach messages are sent.

Too often, clients and prospects try to jump the gun with link building. These people understand the value of links, but don’t understand what’s involved in sustainably earning links.

Consistently securing worthwhile links and achieving organic search growth requires an upfront investment in:

Today, I want to discuss each of these SEO pillars individually to help you be better prepared to effectively earn links and drive search results.

1. Everything Starts with Keyword Research

Link building is most powerful when it’s strategic, and strategic link building is built on sound keyword research.

Link building is time-consuming and difficult. You need to find the opportunities where links can have the most impact.

Proper keyword research will uncover these high-return opportunities and guide link building strategy.

Keep It Simple

Follow this simplified process to find your best SEO keywords:

  • Build out a seed list of keywords.
  • Analyze seed keywords.
  • Prioritize best opportunities.

Each step of this process is integral to identifying which keywords can drive the best results for search.

Build out a Seed List of Keywords

Keyword research should start by putting together a list of seed keywords.

Seed keywords are the baseline search terms most important to your business. To build this list, examine these potential sources:

  • Product or service terms.
  • Competitor keywords.
  • Related searches within search engines.
  • Audience language and terms.

Using these sources you can compile a list of seed keywords that will provide a foundation as you refine your keyword research.

Analyze Seed Keywords

After you’ve built a seed list, you need to analyze the key terms you’ve identified.

This analysis will help you better understand the potential search opportunity associated with each term. Areas for analysis include:

  • Search volume.
  • Searcher intent.
  • Competition level.
  • Brands ranking currently.
  • Corresponding SERP features.

Each of these factors contributes to the overall opportunity associated with your seed keywords.

Prioritize Best Opportunities

Once you’ve analyzed the key areas that determine search opportunity, you can prioritize keyword targets to maximize SEO results.

Link building is a long-term strategy and it takes time to see results.

In order to prove efficacy quickly and gain buy-in for the entirety of your project, you want to target the opportunities that yield the most return with the least investment first.


Prioritize your keyword opportunities based on the following criteria:

  • Alignment with overarching business goals.
  • Balance of low competition and high search volume.
  • Required internal investment (resources, time, etc.)

Evaluating keywords based on these criteria will leave you with a handful of prime opportunities that should inform your link building strategy.

2. Realizing Search Opportunities Requires Content Development

To rank in search, you must deserve to rank in search. You need to have a page that answers searcher intent at least as well as the current ranking pages, and this requires content development.

Content development can either mean improving existing pages or crafting entirely new pages.

Improving Existing Pages

New content is not always required. If you already have a page that serves your target keywords, slight improvements to the page and backlinks could be enough to make the difference in terms of organic visibility.

Any page that you designate as a potential target page should already be ranking decently (>50) and have shown a propensity for links. If these attributes are present, small tweaks could increase linkability and better position your page to answer relevant searches.

The best places to draw inspiration for potential changes are the SERPs you are targeting, as these are the pages you want to compete with.

Potential changes that increase linkability include:

  • Increasing depth and length of content.
  • Adding multiple formats (video, interactivity, etc.).
  • Improving design and visuals.
  • Updating time-sensitive content.

Improving existing pages can provide a low-investment option for targeting important keywords.

Crafting Strategic Pages

If you don’t have a page that sufficiently answers the intent behind your target terms, you’ll need to create a page.

Similar to updating existing pages, when you create a new page the first thing you should do is look at ranking pages. As you begin to develop your new page, referencing ranking pages will make styling and formatting decisions easier — you’ll want to create a page similar to the pages that currently rank.

The goal is to craft the best possible page for the keywords you are targeting.

Your two primary considerations when creating these pages should be:

  • Answering searcher intent.
  • Optimizing the structure of your page to include all keyword possibilities.

If you build a quality page it will be set up for success from the onset. Furthermore, these strategic assets are well-positioned to earn quality links that boost their search performance even more.

3. On-page Optimization Comes Before Off-page

External optimization — link acquisition — is far more powerful when it is supported by on-page optimization.

If you secure worthwhile links but they point to a suboptimal site, you’re leaving equity on the table.

Conversely, when your pages are well-designed and optimized, backlinks can be the tipping point for visibility and traffic.

As you create new pages and audit old sections of your site, be mindful of the following technical issues:

Getting the technical elements right ensures you get the most value out of the links you earn.

Along with these technical elements, internal linking should be a primary consideration. Internal links are vital to link building because they:

  • Impact usability.
  • Guide search crawlers.
  • Direct valuable link equity.

Internal links make it possible to siphon link equity to product and category pages that otherwise struggle to earn links. An example diagram of this linking structure would look like:

Third-party linking site > Linkable asset on your site > Important product page

Other site owners are typically hesitant to link to conversion-driven pages. But if you create linkable assets with internal links, you can leverage the value of the links those assets attract for your converting pages.


The biggest part of link building is the manual work of convincing others to link. However, all that hard work is diminished if you don’t account for the other factors that impact link building success.

To ensure you get the most out of your link acquisition:

  • Start with keyword research to inform link building strategy.
  • Create new pages or improve existing content to target search opportunities.
  • Audit on-page optimization and internal links to maximize ROI from link building.

More Link Building Resources:

Image Credits

Featured & In-Post Images: Created by author, June 2018

Category Link Building
VIP CONTRIBUTOR Andrew Dennis Sr. Content Marketing and SEO Manager at Whatfix

Andrew Dennis is a Sr. Content Marketing and SEO Manager at Whatfix, a digital adoption platform. When he’s not learning, writing, or ...

Successful Link Building Requires More Than Links

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