Link Building: A Complete Guide for Beginners

a picture of Tom Donohoe
Written by: Tom Donohoe
Last updated: July 1, 2018

Link building is a top ranking factor on Google, making it a vital part of search engine optimisation.

And the bottom line is:

If you don’t build high-quality and relevant links, you won’t increase your organic search traffic.

In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about SEO link building.





Link building definitions and metrics

In this guide, I drop a bunch of industry jargon and buzzwords. So, I put together a short list of definitions you need to be aware of to understand link building.

Domain authority: is a metric that evaluates a website authority on a scale of 0-100. The higher the domain authority, the better. Several SEO tools use this metric although its name differs.

Page authority: is the same as domain authority, but ranked on an individual page level.

Anchor text: is the clickable or hyperlinked text. You may be familiar with the blue underlined text, which is the default on the web. But, the color can change with CSS code.

Follow Link: a follow link is one that will pass link equity to its target. You want a majority of your backlinks to be follow links.

Nofollow link: a nofollow link will not pass link equity to its target. But, if you don’t have some no-follow links, your backlink profile can look unnatural.

Backlink: is a link that points from one website to another.

Referring Domain: a referring domain is another website that links to you. Be aware that you can have multiple backlinks from one referring domain.

Referring Pages: referring pages is the total number of unique pages that link from another website to your website.

Broken Links: are pages that no longer exist that have websites linking to them. If someone clicked on a broken link, they would be served a ‘404 page not found’ error.

Link scheme: are link building activities which try to manipulate a websites ranking in Google’s search results.




Chapter 2

What makes a high-quality backlink?

Before you start trying to build hundreds of links, I should tell you that Google cares about link quality.

Not too long ago SEOs would build link in spammy ways. Google was sick of it and released an update known as Google Penguin. Google Penguin focuses on link quality and not just link quantity.

So, how do you evaluate a quality link? Let’s dive deep into link quality.





Link building strategies to avoid

Some link building strategies you should avoid at all cost. Even though they might be tempting, please stick clear for your websites sake.

Google is transparent on two strategies that a strictly against their guidelines:

  1. Buying PageRank-passing links otherwise known as follow links.
  2. Randomly exchanging links

Google says, “If your site’s visibility in the Google index is important to you it’s best to avoid them.”

You can read in detail Google’s policy on building links. But in a nutshell, any links that intend to manipulate your rankings are a violation of the guidelines.

How to evaluate backlink quality

Evaluating the quality of a link is subjective, and many professional SEOs will have different opinions.

But I find in most cases, that most use at least one or all the below factors.

Relevancy of the Site

In my opinion, relevancy is critical when evaluating a backlink.

For example, my website focuses on digital marketing, so a link from a food blog wouldn’t hold much weight.

And an ex-googler confirmed my thoughts in an interview:

“today it’s more the relevance of the site’s theme in regards to yours; relevance is the new PR.”

Authority of the Page

Following relevancy, I always look at the authority of the page that links to yours. Even if the website is relevant, you don’t want a link from a low-quality page.

Tools such as Moz Link Explorer and ahrefs site explorer can help you evaluate the authority of a page. Here’s an example from ahrefs:

ahrefs page authority metric

URL rating shows how strong the authority of a page, and DR shows the authority of the entire website.

Authority of the Site

Next up is looking at the authority of the entire website. Often you might be getting a link from a page that doesn’t exist yet. So, looking at the site authority can help gauge how valuable a link would be.

Again use a tool like Moz Link Explorer and ahrefs site explorer. Here’s an example from Moz:

Moz Domain authority metric

Link’s Position on the Page

A links position on the page is also essential to how valuable it is.

The best links are editorially placed links, which are links positioned within the body of the article. Editorial links are more natural and powerful because the website is recommending your website.

Links in the footer or hidden links won’t be valued as high as an editorial link.

Follow vs. nofollow links

There are two types of links on a page a follow link and a nofollow link. A follow link will pass link equity. A nofollow tells search engines “Don’t follow links on this page” or “Don’t follow this specific link.”

From an SEO perspective, nofollow links aren’t great because you won’t get as much value. But, it’s important to mention a high-quality, natural backlink profile will feature both follow and nofollow links.

So, don’t be too concerned if you are getting nofollow links but try to acquire follow links where possible.




Chapter 3

Anchor text optimisation

Anchor text is the clickable or hyperlinked text. You may be familiar with the blue underlined text, which is the default on the web.

Here’s the deal:

Anchor text is a ranking factor, and the text you use in your links matters. But it’s imperative not to over-optimise anchors because it’s spam in Google’s eyes.





How to optimise anchor text the safe way

To be safe with anchor text optimisation you should look to have a natural ratio of keyword rich anchors and non-keyword heavy anchors.

I find letting the site owner who is linking to you select the anchor text works well and makes it more natural.

Straight from Google’s quality guidelines:

Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.

For example, there are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.

The safest bet here is to avoid building links with exact keyword match anchor text. And only place a link to your website on another if it provides value to the article, and not just for the link.




9 link building strategies that work

Link building is hard, especially when you’re starting out and don’t know the strategies that work.

Well, I’m here to help. I’ve limited this chapter to the link building strategies that I recommend, and I’ve had success with over my career.

Let’s dive right in.




1. Link Bait

Link bait is a broad strategy that covers many tactics, but it’s very effective at earning backlinks. You need to create an asset on your website that people perceive to be high value or unique. Something that they can’t resist linking to on their site.

In an article from the Webmasters blog, Google even mentions that link-bait can be a powerful strategy to earn links. But, they do caution “you shouldn’t rely on them as a long-term strategy or as your only marketing effort.”

Some popular link bait assets that work are:
  • In-depth research
  • Unique data
  • A survey
  • Attractive/unique graphics
  • A free too

There’s also the Buzzstream kind of link bait articles that can earn you links too. But this won’t work in all industries.

I find that unique data and research work best. You can get high-quality backlinks with targeted promotion it to niche publications in your industry.

An example of successful link bait is the Shopify Business name generator. It has picked up links from over 500 domains.

link bait example from shopify




2. The expert roundup or ego Bait

This strategy is simple. You need to create content that features ‘experts’ or ‘influencers’ on your website. Then you share it with them via email or social media. Most of the time they will link to you or at least share the content.

It’s no surprise that this link building strategy works, at the end of the day people love to promote how good they are!

Best Ego Bait Strategies:
  • Interviewing an influencer or expert in a blog or podcast
  • Getting a large group to answer a question and rounding it up in an article
  • Quoting things experts or influencers have said in your content.
  • Collaborate on an article with several people.

Here’s an example from Ahrefs by asking 90 SEO experts to answer questions about link building. The article got 138 referring domains.

expert roundup or ego Bait link building example from ahrefs




3. Broken link building

Broken link building is what it sounds like, find broken links on other websites and ask them to replace the old link with a link to your website.

How to go about broken link building:
  1. Find websites with links pointing to pages that don’t exist anymore. You can use a plugin like Check My Links to identify broken links easily.
  2. Contact the website owner and inform them that they are linking to a page that no longer exists. Suggest a resource on your website that could replace it and explain why.
  3. If you don’t have a resource that could replace the broken link consider if it’s worth creating one.

More often than not the website owner will replace the broken link with your resource if it is relevant.




4. Link reclamation

Link reclamation can refer to many strategies, but it boils down to recovering links you had or should have had.

Link reclamation strategies:
  • Monitoring mentions of your brand online that weren’t linked and ask the website owner for a link.
  • Monitoring the web for other people using your assets without linking to your website. And asking the website owner for a link.
  • Fixing links to your website that are broken and redirecting them to a new page, so you don’t lose the link equity.

This link building strategy is more useful for big brands that get mentioned a lot online.

You can use a tool like Mention to get live updates about your brand from the web and social media.




5. Newsjacking

People use newsjacking all the time to generate awareness for their brand. It’s an easy way to earn links as well.

Keep an eye on the news and create content on something that is trending in the story.

Strategies for effective newsjacking:
  • Create unique content that adds to the hype
  • Publish exciting data that supports the hype
  • Create an interactive tool that adds to the buzz

Whatever you do, don’t add another crappy story to the clutter that adds no value.

An example of newsjacking is an infographic created in the time PokemonGo was taking over the world. The infographic was generated based on the most searched Pokemon by state.

an example of successful newsjacking

The infographic got 98 referring domains to a website that isn’t very well known, which is a fantastic result.




6. Guest Blogging

Guest blogging for link building turned terrible when it got abused, and ex-Googler Mutt Cutts even said it’s pretty much dead.

Low-quality, spammy guest posting will hurt your websites rankings. But high-quality guest posting is still a great way to build links.

Your guest posting should focus on branding, exposure to a new audience and referral traffic. And consider the link quality factors I mentioned earlier, mainly relevancy.

Try these search operators to find guest blogging opportunity:

“write for us” + “your keyword”

“guest post guidelines” + “your keyword”

“guest blog” + “your keyword”

Never use an exact match anchor text in a guest post, and if you want to be safe opt for no follow links. But in my experience, a branded link to a homepage works.




7. Infographics

Infographics are one of my favourite link building strategies and work a charm. Infographic link building involves creating a visually compelling asset and sharing it with other websites.

For infographics to work they need to be unique and high-quality, then you need to get the outreach right. You must target websites that have covered the topic of the infographic before.

Here’s an outreach script that I’ve used in the past:

Hi First Name,

I was doing some research for an SEO article I’m writing and came across your website.

I found that you publish a lot of useful content about SEO, and your audience seems to love it!

I just put together a super detailed SEO checklist infographic – I think you might like it.

Here’s a link to the infographic: https://www.tomdonohoe.com.au/blog/seo-checklist

If you’d like to publish it on your site, I’ll be happy to write a short intro just for your website to support the infographic.

Thanks,
Your Name.




8. Directory Submissions

Its debated in the SEO community whether directory submission provides valuable links and I tend to argue they do.

As long as the directory is relevant to your niche and high-quality, then it’s a good link.

How to evaluate a directory submission

Based on what we know from Google, I look at:

  • If the directory has topical relevance to the niche of the website
  • If it’s moderated and not everyone is accepted
  • If it’s well structured and adds value to the internet.
  • High domain/page authority

Avoid:

  • Mass submission directories
  • Low-quality directories set up for link building

There are some great directories to build links, and if you do your due diligence, you will score excellent links.




9. Sponsorships (charity, events, etc.)

Charities, events, and non-profit organisations will often list sponsors on their website with a link. These websites tend to have substantial website authority and can provide useful links.

There is some risk involved in this strategy as it can fall under buying links. But, it’s on the low end of the scale as long as you don’t go crazy with it.

There is a cost associated with this strategy, but sometimes you can offer a service instead.

Here are some search operators to help find opportunities:
  • inurl:sponsors “City name”
  • intitle:sponsors “City name”
  • intext:sponsors “City name”
  • inurl:supporters “City name”
  • intitle:supporters “City name”
  • intext:supporters “City name”
  • inurl:partners “City name”
  • intitle:partners “City name”
  • intext:partners “City name”



Ahrefs site explorer

Get an in-depth look at the backlink profile and search traffic of any website or URL:

Ahrefs site explorer

Moz Link Explorer / Open Site Explorer

Research backlinks, find link-building opportunities and discover potentially damaging links with Open Site Explorer:

Moz Open Site Explorer

Majestic

Majestic’s Backlink Checker tools are recognized as World Class, based on the world’s most comprehensive back-link data crawled from all over the world:

Majestic site explorer

SEMrush

A powerful website backlink checker that shows all links pointing to your domain and their quality is indispensable for performing link audits:

SEMrush backlink checker