So I have a pet peeve in our industry. People read or hear or discover that some tactic or other can help with SEO, and within those, some are really important. Then they proceed to pound that method into the ground until it’s dead.
Or in the case of off-site authority, relevance, and trust signals, specifically with inbound links, the concept, process, and methods of building that signal set gets passed along so much, and filtered down so much, and regurgitated so much that it’s like the old game of telephone.
What started out as a really strong, valid set of concepts, ends up being twisted and jumbled up so much that by the time most people learn about “link building”, it’s still, to this day, a painful train wreck of bad advice.
Artificial Patterns – the Bane of My Existence
The Internet is a natural eco-system. The moment you create a site that has an artificial pattern to it, that site becomes suspect.
The more sites following that pattern, the more obvious the artificial pattern becomes. The more obvious an artificial pattern, the more likely Google’s systems will mathematically laugh in your face.
Note that this is sometimes seen as a pure one-time direct penalty. Yet it’s also often a case where the lack of on-site SEO refinement and the lack of quality off-site signals combine to create a situation where you’re going to see problems for a long time, and not isolated to a single event.
Stop the Insanity – Stop the Artificial Pattern Generation
Forensic site audits are my livelihood. Site owners pay me really good money to help fix their broken nightmare SEO. And when it comes to those off-site signals, the garbage they’ve read online, and the garbage other, previous “SEO experts” have foisted on them and polluted their minds with, is downright toxic.
So in this article, I’m going to do my best to provide a set of insights, recommendations and general guidelines to help you learn how to get past the insanity. It’s time. Our industry needs to grow up.
This isn’t a comprehensive training manual. So don’t get all upset when you’ve read this and think “but what about X?”
Instead, use this article as a foundation starting point of your tasking efforts. From there, keep this knowledge in mind as you seek out more granular knowledge for any of the things I’m recommending you do and recommending you avoid.
It will help you be a better learner and a better professional.
Link Building Isn’t Link Building – It’s Much More
If you want to succeed in sustainable ways, you need to understand what it means to build links properly.
True “link building” isn’t fixated on building links. It’s built on doing what successful brands have been doing for all recorded time historically in the business world.
It’s built on public relations, not myopic methods that purport to be PR.
‘The earliest definitions emphasized press agentry and publicity, while more modern definitions incorporate the concepts of “engagement” and “relationship building.”’ – Public Relations Society of America
Links & citations, when truly earned, need to be all about:
- Brand visibility growth
- Brand authority building
- Brand trust building
Because of that, don’t think “we need links”. Instead, think “we need to build our brand, based on visibility, authority, and trust.”
Public relations (that leads to quality, relevant links, as well as quality, trust building citations) includes many actions.
Below are several (though not all) ways you need to go about getting the kind of links that lead to the strongest site metrics. Because only then, is SEO truly based on optimization and not obnoxiousness.
PRIMARY TASK: Create Powerful Content
STOP – Don’t gloss over this most important step in the process. If you ignore this or arrogantly think you have this covered without fully understanding it, you’re already screwed.
If you create content that is the kind that people would consider powerful, for a host of reasons, that content is the kind of content most likely to be shared socially, and to have the potential for earning high-quality links.
How do you get to powerful?
- Fill a void.
- Answer important questions.
- Differentiate your content from others.
- Impact emotion.
Note that last item – “impact emotion” is what it’s all about. Everybody who is a prospective customer or client, who is a decision maker, relies on emotion in that decision process whether they claim to do so or not.
Whether the emotion is trust, respect, admiration, confidence, comfort, some combination, or any of a range of other emotions, it is through emotion that people make decisions that will impact their lives, their businesses, and their careers.
When it makes sense, make that content evergreen. If it’s timeless, such as a case study, as just one example, that’s evergreen, not appropriate or helpful being contained within a blog post (though you can announce it’s creation/availability in a blog post, and link to the evergreen page from there).
Evergreen Content vs. Blog Content
If you want to earn inbound links, citations, and social sharing, strive to create as much high-quality evergreen content as possible vs. blog content. Too many people fixate on blog content when evergreen content is severely lacking in depth, scale, and volume.
If you haven’t created evergreen content to support trust, respect, or confidence beyond basic product and service pages, do that before you create blog content.
If you have access to large-scale data for your industry where you can create an interactive/engaging media piece for it, that content is often ideal as evergreen content when done properly.
PRIMARY TASK: Be Helpful Where It Matters
Participate in relevant communities where the focus is on being truly helpful.
- Online Q&A forums
- Social media channels
- Conferences, workshops, and gatherings
- Trade group websites, newspapers, magazines, and journals
Don’t force your sales pitch – don’t force links to your site.
Do be truly helpful without caring, in that moment, about links.
Do look to become recognized as a trustworthy top-tier knowledge resource.
PRIMARY TASK: Contributing vs. Guest Posting
Guest posting has become yet another over-used, often misunderstood way to supposedly build good links. Except there are inherent flaws in it when done by most people, even many who claim to be experts in SEO.
Change your understanding, refine your methods.
Instead of “We need to guest post on a bunch of sites”, look to become a guest contributor on a site that doesn’t normally offer guest posting. If you hit it out of the ballpark, you may be invited back and may even eventually be asked to become a regular contributor.
If a site does accept regular guest posts, perform due diligence to ensure it’s the highest quality site, and content is all high quality. Ensure that site doesn’t have a toxic inbound link profile.
Ensure they don’t list authors as “admin” or use an internal author name instead of yours.
Don’t force content. Avoid being obnoxious in the writing. Ensure maximum value in any link you include if you even include a link.
Guest posting doesn’t always have to, and should not always, include links from within content. In fact, if most of your guest posts do include links to your own site, you’re creating an artificial pattern.
- Create original content of the highest quality for that audience
- Respect the audience
- Go further than most in what you give
- Local, regional, national
- Industry relevant
- Audiences where prospective customers/clients gather
- Audiences where industry peers gather
SECONDARY TASK: Contests/Giveaways/Scholarships
By creating a high-quality contest, giveaway, or scholarship, you create many opportunities to be recognized as worthy of respect and appreciation. Offering these can lead to social sharing, deep engagement, and earned links.
Think: “How can we set this up to get the most engagement?”
Scholarships can be one of the many different ways you give to the community. Just understand it can’t be a primary way, and the majority of participants won’t be your ideal market. The overwhelming majority of links come from pages buried deep in “edu” sites or “scholarship list” sites that are nothing but outlink pages from within sections of those sites where they are entirely irrelevant to your primary market. So most traffic is low value.
Sure, it looks great when, for just $500, you can get hundreds of links. And thousands of visits.
Yet when was the last time you tracked how many of those visitors became customers or clients?
Instead, scholarships can serve to help convey you care about your community as a brand trust signal more than a high-value link signal.
More Relevant Contests & Giveaways
A contest or giveaway that involves prospective customer engagement – video creation, essay submission, etc, is always better than a simple “sign up to enter” form.
A $1,500 product or service is way more valuable and worthy than one that’s $500. A $2,500 product or service is way more valuable than one that’s $1,500, and so forth…
A year’s worth of groceries, or six months worth of gas, or two pairs of tickets to the next six games for someone’s favored sports team, are great examples of strong engagement potential giveaways or contests.
While the above examples are all relevant in public relations, and it is wise to include some of those from time to time, it’s also relevant to mix things up, from time to time. So a lifetime membership to your organization, or a year’s free products you sell, or an all-expense paid trip to your next industry event, are all great examples of strong engagement that directly ties into your business in more direct ways.
Those more engaging and interactive methods of running a contest or giveaway will lead to more potential for people naturally wanting to link to you. Others who don’t even participate directly will want to naturally link to you.
Your Own Site, Not Social Media
If it is at all possible, run the contest or giveaway on your own site, and use social media to promote it. If you run it through Facebook, your site won’t earn the brand visibility and engagement, or the potential earned links that matter most. Facebook wins more than you do.
When you involve products/services you offer in the contest or giveaway, your contest page(s) can link directly to those products/services.
The Biggest Win of All
Also, consider giving away products or services directly to those truly in need within your community.
Do so from time to time, or regularly, with no contest involved, no elaborate engagement process. If you do that enough, people will recognize you for it without asking.
Even then, it is acceptable for you to create real, evergreen content around those efforts. Content with text, images, video and other media.
Do that consistently enough and you will also earn media attention. Or at that point, you can use PR outreach just to bring attention to it, except where that outreach is subtler, and not the driving goal of that philanthropic initiative.
SECONDARY TASK: Link Reclamation
If you have links pointing to your site and the page they’re pointing to is broken, that’s a wasted inbound link. So it’s critical that you don’t just go randomly killing off pages on your site without taking the time to consider that inbound link factor. And if you do kill a page that has inbound links, see if you can reach out to site owners where those are and get them to update the link.
Note that this also includes internal links. If you have internal links on important pages pointing to a broken page on your own site, that’s going to impact your link profile as well.
SECONDARY TASK: Build Links by Looking to Replace Bad Links on Target Sites
By all means – if you’ve given a good effort to efforts across the range I’ve described, and you want to go further – more granular in this process, then it makes sense to consider looking to sites where you might want to see links pointing to your site, and finding where they have outbound links that are broken or pointing to stale content.
In that scenario, the concept is you can contact those site owners and say “hey – I see that link on your site pointing to X is broken” – I have this great page you may want to consider linking to instead”.
There are many ways to go about that. Except it’s a challenge to think you can get most site owners or managers to even take you seriously.
Instead, this is typically considered spam at this point, it’s been abused so much. While some people have success with it, they’re not most people. So just be aware, it’s not an easy or highly productive use of time for most people.
SECONDARY TASK: The Concept of the Press Release
While many people in the search industry think press releases are not valid, helpful, or truly worth bothering about anymore, or conversely where some think press releases are an easy way to generate thousands of links, in reality, proper, high-quality press releases issued for valid business reasons, have always been, are now, and will continue to be, truly valid. Yet there are limits.
The key though is knowing how and when to issue press releases for the right reasons (and the right reasons are not primarily for link building) at the right times (and the right times are not “because we need more links in the lead up to the coming holiday sales season”).
So too, is it important to understand the need for crafting the highest quality releases that aren’t obnoxious or abusive in nature.
Example “Right Time” Cases:
- New product issuance
- New service offering
- Revamped website
- Major contest
- Major giveaway
- Major change in company ownership, management, direction or strategy
Press – Tying it All Together
If you do enough work consistently across the full spectrum or even a significant portion of the spectrum of PR like the examples given above, you would be best served to create one or more pages on your site that communicate those efforts and the results they earn, and that needs to be done in ways that are also of the highest quality.
Whether it’s just a “Media Coverage” or “In the News” type page, or something more extensive, such as an entire Press or Media Section or sub-section to your About page, that content is helpful when it becomes a single point of information that helps consolidate the signal that you’re a quality, trustworthy brand.
BONUS: Internal Link Structure
I am only including this section in this article because it needs to be said. I almost didn’t include it because of how obnoxious people get with believing they can “sculpt PageRank” by abusive levels of granular manipulation through internal links.
I am including a mention of internal links here because, when done properly, they are part of the overall link profile for a site. So – be aware that you do need to have links throughout the site, where placing them is valid for human reader needs, to link to other important pages on your site. And these links you can increase the signal strength of those target pages when you do this.
Biggest Internal Link Caveat
If you attempt to fixate on granular efforts that translate into a specific percentage of links to each type of page, you are setting yourself up for trouble. So yes – go and look throughout your site to see where you have a valid opportunity to link from page to page internally. Just don’t get stupid with it.
And remember – there is no valid formula you can even attempt to match, for “X number of links or internal links” I have to have pointing to “this type of page” on my site. Unless you want algorithms to mathematically laugh in your face.
Beyond the Foundation – True PR Outreach
You can attempt to do all of these things I’ve recommended, and you may go far with it. Yet at the very least, it would be smart if you were to consult with a public relations professional, or outright hire them to help not only with all of these methods, but where they have or can establish the connections needed for you to get media coverage that takes it all to a whole new level beyond.
When executed properly, working to “answer all the questions” on-site, supported by real world public relations initiatives, combined with top tier social sharing and engagement efforts, inevitably bring tremendous value that happens to include the best possible kind of links imaginable. Yet you need to avoid unnatural patterns in that work. And you need to understand how all of these paths are part of a unified eco-system. When you do, you’re more likely to succeed long-term.
In-Post Photos: Created by Alan Bleiweiss, September 2017.
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!