Building an audience is at top of mind for any blog owner. And if you’re running a blog with a few dedicated fans, you might wonder how to get your content in front of more people.
So, you start researching audience building methods.
Somewhere along the way, you stumble across an approach called “link-building.” It sounds interesting, but every guide you click immerses you in a sea of confusing phrases like “off-site SEO,” “ranking signals,” and… “Hummingbird,” “Possum,” and “Panda?”
Turns out link building is a baby step into the wide world of a technical, jargon-filled industry called SEO.
But never fear: consider this your total beginner’s guide to link building. It will take you from the absolute basics to a solid foundation in link-building techniques. All the information you need, with none of the jargon and fiddly technical bits you don’t.
SEO Definitions You Should Know
“Wait, you mentioned SEO—what’s that?”
Glad you asked. SEO stands for search engine optimization. It means refining and perfecting websites, web pages, and content so they will rank high on results pages for Google and other search engines.
SEO is usually conducted by SEO specialists and other individuals specializing in digital marketing or technical web development (depending on which sector of the industry they work in).
If you’re a complete newbie to the field of SEO, the specialized language can be overwhelming. But, for this guide, you’ll only need to understand a bit of the jargon:
- Link: A hyperlink between two websites
- Outbound link: A link from your site that leads out to an external site.
- Inbound link or backlink: A link from an external site that leads in to your site
- SERP: Search Engine Results Page, i.e. the page that comes up any time you search a term on a search engine
And finally, the complicated one:
- Search algorithm: The process by which search engines determine what websites to rank on the first pages of their search results
This is a complicated operation that’s proprietary to each search engine and may use multiple algorithms, even if it’s referred to as a singular algorithm. Since Google has the largest share of the search engine market, you’ll usually hear this termed “The Google Algorithm.”
Unfortunately, no one knows the exact factors that allow a page to rank. Some factors (usually called ranking signals or ranking factors) are confirmed, but others are based on SEO specialists’ speculation. Which means increasing your page rank is a bit like trying to complete a Rubik’s cube blindfolded with both hands tied behind your back.
For our purposes here, think of the algorithm as a black box: you don’t need to know how it all works. Just know it exists and can be influenced by certain factors.
What Is Link Building?
Link building is the process of getting other websites on the internet to link to your website with inbound links. Simple, right?
The why of link building is much more complicated. It requires understanding three things:
- Why you need your website to rank higher in search results
- Why links matter to ranking
- How you know if your link-building strategies are working
Why You Need to Rank on Google
Think of the last time you searched for something on Google. How far down the results page did you scroll?
If you’re like 90% of Google users, probably not far. Check out this chart from Backlinko’s 2019 analysis:
Analysis Credit to Brian Dean at Backlinko
Conclusion: if you’re not near the top of Google’s rankings on a results page, you won’t get organic search traffic.
So we know why we need to be higher on the SERPs. How we do that is a bit of a different story…
What’s the Big Deal About Links?
In the early days of Google, the founders developed a way of ranking websites based on the number of links pointing to them. They called it PageRank.
One of the major thought processes behind PageRank was that links could be quantified for quality. And if a site had a lot of high quality inbound links from other sites, it could be trusted and thus rank higher in search results.
Well, Google hasn’t updated PageRank since 2013 and most SEO specialists consider it a dead, defunct measurement.
However, Google’s search algorithm still takes links into account to rank websites. Meaning inbound links continue to be an important part of helping your website rank on the first page of the search results.
How to Track Your Link Building
Because search engines like Google use a proprietary set of algorithms, no one understands exactly why their websites rank for certain keywords.
Despite this, SEO specialists have to keep track of where their website ranks for specific keywords to know if their efforts are helping (or harming) their numbers.
So, companies like Moz and Ahrefs have created ways to measure a website’s backlink profile (i.e. the number and quality of the site’s inbound links). For Moz, the profile is called the Domain Authority (DA) while Ahrefs calls it Domain Rating (DR).
DA and DR are measured on a scale of 1–100. The higher a website’s DR or DA, the more likely that website is to rank on the first page of the search results (though note: it is not a ranking factor.)
The primary way you raise your site’s DR or DA? Link building.
SEO specialists argue over whether DA or DR is more accurate all the time. But, for getting started, you can use either. You’ll just use it to measure whether your link building is working. Set up a profile on Moz or AHREFS, get a baseline DR or DA reading for your site before your link building, then track your DA/DR as you link-build.
Link Building Methods: White Hats, Black Hats, and Grey Hats
Since there’s been a search algorithm, there’s been people looking for ways to outsmart (or downright scam) the algorithm.
Which means link building tactics fall into three categories:
White Hat: these are “safe” techniques Google won’t penalize because they follow Google’s guidelines.
Black Hat: These techniques have a good chance of leading to ranking penalties if Google catches you using them. Generally, they’re spammy or scam-type techniques.
Grey Hat: These techniques are in the middle. They usually bend the rules of the search engines without breaking them outright. So they’re riskier than white hat, but not nearly as risky as black hat.
If you’re just starting with link building, stay under the white hat umbrella. In principle, black hat techniques are “short-term results, long-term suffering” methods. And grey hat techniques should be reserved for SEO specialists who really know what they’re doing and can take some calculated risks.
So the techniques we cover today will all be white hat.
The Three Best White Hat Ways to Build Links
Usually when we talk white-hat SEO, we’re referring to creating relevant, informative content that people want to read. But, if your site doesn’t have a ton of traffic coming to it, you can create the most wonderful content in the world and never get eyeballs on it. Which is why most white hat tactics focus on natural audience building to create links.
We’ll focus on three: guest posting, becoming a source, and generating extraordinary content.
1. Guest Posting
Okay, so you may be sick of seeing guest posting touted as one of the best ways to build an audience. But there’s a reason for that: it works.
Guest posting puts your content in front of an entirely new audience. If you’re lucky and land a guest post for a larger player in your niche or a major publication, that audience may be hundreds or thousands of new potential readers.
It’s an exciting prospect, but fair warning: temper your expectations. It takes a great deal of time and energy to land the “big fish” posts. And even then, readers may not trickle over to your site in a steady stream until you’ve posted consistently on other sites.
But, if you’re willing to be patient and post regularly, you’ll see results. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:
Start small. Unless you’re running a fairly established site or have some claim to fame (i.e. you’re a leader in your field), it’s better to start with pitching to smaller blogs that you know your target audience reads. It can be a bit of a trial by fire – these dedicated niche readers may scrutinize your post more than casual readers at larger publications. But, learning to write for such discerning audiences will polish your skills to wow the gatekeepers in the big leagues.
Build a relationship first. You wouldn’t ask someone for a dinner party invite five minutes after meeting them. So don’t fall into the same trap with guest posting. Find relevant guest posting opportunities, do in-depth research on the site and the person you’ll be pitching to, then interact with their content. Retweet, comment on blog posts, engage on other social media platforms. Once the relationship is warmer, make the pitch.
Pitch well. Pitches should be short, sweet, and to-the-point. More importantly, they need to focus on a unique angle specific to the outlet you’re pitching. No mass emailing. Take the time to craft and tailor each pitch email you send. Want to know more? Check out our top 5 tips for pitching.
Link back to your site. Somewhere within your guest post or on your author biography, you need to link to your site. This could be a link to a relevant post (your best bet for gaining traffic) within the post body text or simply a link to your homepage in your bio. Most outlets have no issue with one or two links in a guest post, but keep it to three links maximum.
A note on guest posts and SEO: Google has grumbled for years about not liking guest posts. Mass guest posting (like content farming guest posts) can even damage your site’s ranking.
But, SEO specialists have concluded the guest post links pass some form of authority on. Regardless, whatever it doesn’t do for direct SEO, it will boost your audience given time, quality content, and consistent posting.
2. Become a Reporter’s Source
Now if only there was a way to reap the benefits of guest posting without having to write the post yourself…
Good news: public relations tactics can help you do that. Specifically, acting as a source for reporters.
Reporters run on tight deadlines. They often don’t have time to spend hours researching and contacting experts in a field to receive a single sentence unique quote.
That’s where Help a Reporter Out (HARO) comes in handy.
HARO allows reporters to submit requests for the input of subject matter experts, known as sources. Usually these requests outline:
- What subject the reporter is writing about
- What kind of experts they’re looking for
- Which questions they’d like to have answered
- How to format your request response
As a source, you can build authority (and links) without writing entire articles yourself. If a reporter likes your request response, they’ll usually quote you in the article – with a backlink you provided.
Sound like an awesome opportunity? Here’s how to do it:
Create a HARO source account. After you’ve registered, subscribe to topic emails you’re interested in pitching. If you need it, HARO has a great getting started guide.
Monitor the request email lists. Each day, you’ll receive morning, afternoon, and evening emails containing requests from reporters. The request volume varies – on some days you may find yourself scrolling through the topics for a good long while.
Respond to requests of interest. Much like pitching for guest posts, short and to the point is best. But more importantly…
Follow the instructions in the request. Want to annoy a reporter? Respond to their request and either A. Don’t answer the questions they posed, or B. Ignore specific guidelines regarding response formatting, preferred connection medium (i.e. email or phone) or attribution information like headshots, websites, and bios. In PR circles, it’s common wisdom: “Give the reporters what they want, how they want it.”
Request types vary so the reporter may contact you for more information or they may not. For those that don’t contact you, keep an eye on their publication profiles or use a tool like BuzzSumo to keep track of mentions of you and/or your site. Landed a link? Great – add it to your success tally!
3. Extraordinary Content
“Why can’t I just get people to link to the content I produce?” You may ask. “There should be a way to do that, right?”
There is. It’s called going far above and beyond the efforts of your ranking competitors.
Thanks to Brian Dean and his Skyscraper Link Building technique, the SEO world understands the link building impact of extraordinary content. This content is hard to produce, high value, and evergreen.
But it’s not for the faint-of-heart. Extraordinary content requires:
Extensive audience research. Before you ever put pen to paper or your fingers to a keyboard to write extraordinary content, you must know your target audience. You should know exactly what your target audience is searching for and focus on answering their questions and concerns. If you produce extraordinary content for a non-issue or a question no one is asking, it still won’t get traffic. Tools like Answer the Public and free keyword research tools can be a lifesaver here.
Creative grit. Extraordinary content is extraordinary for a reason. It requires hours of research and in-depth citations. It needs to provide a unique perspective and value. And it’s long. As in, a 2,000 word-long article won’t cut it. Most extraordinary content runs 4,000 to 5,000 words at the minimum, typically ranging closer to 8,000 to 10,000 words. Content like this can take anywhere from four weeks to four months or more to produce.
Mental bandwidth. Not to sound like a broken record, but these pieces take a ton of time and effort to make. If you’re already hitting the top end of your content production capacity or you feel remotely close to overwhelmed, it’s probably not the right time to aim for an extraordinary piece of content. Delegate what you can, build out some mental space, then focus on producing your content.
Bravery with cold outreach. Yes, you could wait around for people to become interested in your content and link organically. But it’s easier if you reach out to people or sites you’ve mentioned and/or linked in the article. Don’t expect anything in return – simply email them as a courtesy so they know about the mention.
Usually, cold outreach will garner you a few links and post retweets or shares as a base. From there, your efforts will build as readers see the value in what you’ve created and begin linking to you in their content. And because the piece is evergreen, that effect snowballs over time. Before long, you’ve built a huge number of links and can reap the benefits as your ranking soars.
Get Link Building
With these three techniques in your toolbox, you’re ready to start with link building. Remember, be patient and don’t worry if your results aren’t immediate. Link building takes time and you’re bound to see results if you keep at it.
So, get ready, get set… get building!