Link Building For SEO: The Definitive Guide (2018 Update)
It’s no secret that link building is the most important skill in SEO.
In fact, it’s a culmination of several different skills: you need to master content, sales, programming, psychology, and good old-fashioned marketing if you want other people to link to your site.
Bottom line? If you want more search engine traffic, link building is a must.
And in this guide I’m going to show you everything you need to build quality links.
Let’s dive right in.
Chapter 1:Link Building Fundamentals
So it’s clear that links still form the foundation of Google’s algorithm. The question is:
Why are links still so important?
To understand that, you’ll need to hop in your Delorean and go back to the pre-Google days of the internet.
Back in the day, search engines like Yahoo! and Alta Vista (remember them?) were the dominant players. And they ranked their search results 100% based on the content on a webpage.
Their now-famous PageRank Algorithm changed the game. Instead of simply analyzing the content of a page, Google looked at how many people linked to that page.
And they were right. Nearly 20 years later, links are STILL the best way to determine the quality of a webpage. That’s why backlinks remain Google’s go-to ranking signal.
That said, thanks to updates like Google Penguin, Google now focuses on link quality (not just link quantity).
You might be wondering:
What is a high-quality link, exactly? And how do I build them?
That’s what I’m going to cover in the rest of this guide.
Chapter 2:How to Find High-Quality Links
Before we dive into the step-by-step link building strategies, it’s important to know what makes a good (or bad) link.
Why is this important?
When it comes to building backlinks, one of two things can happen:
Thing #1: You Build High-Quality Links
Sit back and watch your site rocket to Google’s first page.
Thing #2: You Build Low-Quality Links
Watch Google penalize your site faster than you can say “what happened?!”.
With that, here’s how to identify links that are actually worth building:
Authority of the Page
Is the page linking to you a PageRank powerhouse? If so, that link is going to have a BIG impact on your rankings.
In fact, from years of testing, I’ve found that the authority of the page linking to you matters more than any other factor.
That’s because links from authoritative pages pass more authority (also known as PageRank) to your site.
(Note: Although Google doesn’t share PageRank information publicly, they still use it as the foundation of their algorithm).
You can easily check a proxy indicator of PageRank (“PageRating”) using Ahrefs.
Just pop a URL into Ahrefs and check out its “URLRating”:
Authority of the Site
A link’s quality is also determined by a domain’s sitewide authority.
In general, a link from a site like NYTimes.com will have a MUCH bigger impact than a link from a no-name blogger.
While these links are tough to get, they’re well worth the effort.
Again, Ahrefs comes in handy here. Enter any URL from the site into the tool and check out the site’s “DomainRating”.
You can also use Moz’s respected “Domain Authority” metric:
Relevancy of the Site
When it comes to links, a site’s authority matters.
But that site’s relevance also matters.
For example, let’s say you run a website about The Paleo Diet.
And you get a link from an authoritative site…about unicycles. Will that link still count?
According to an interview from an ex-Googler, not really.
In general, you want to get links from authority sites…specifically, authority sites that are closely related to your site.
Link’s Position on the Page
Is your link embedded in a piece of content?
Or is it buried in a page’s footer?
It turns out that your link’s position on a page is important.
Specifically, links stashed away in footers and sidebars aren’t worth nearly as much as links found smack in the middle of a page’s body content.
Bottom line? You want your links to appear within the main body of a webpage.
Is the Link Editorially Placed?
No matter where your link appears on a page, you should ask yourself:
“Was this link editorially placed?”.
In other words, did someone link to you because they thought your site is awesome? If so, that’s an editorial link.
Or did you create a profile on a random site and drop a link? That’s not an editorial link.
As you might expect, Google puts MUCH more weight on editorially-placed links.
Link Anchor Text
Anchor text is the clickable text section of a link.
As it turns out, Google uses anchor text as a ranking signal.
For example, let’s say you get a link to your site with anchor text: “paleo desserts”.
Google sees that anchor text and says: “Hmmm. That site used the anchor text: “paleo desserts”. The page they’re linking to must be about “paleo desserts.”
Of course, like anything in SEO, keyword-rich anchor text has been abused. Today, building lots of exact-match anchor text links is considered spammy.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
In short, I don’t recommend building links with keyword-rich anchor text. But if you DO get a link with your keyword in the anchor text, it’s time to celebrate.
Co-Occurrences are the words and phrases that appear around your link.
Google likely uses co-Occurrences as “baby anchor text”.
This makes sense if you think about it:
The text around your link also gives clues to what your page is about. So why wouldn’t Google use it?
Is the Link From a Guest Post?
A few years ago, Google came right out and said:
Is that true?
Here are some red flags that can make guest posting spammy:
- Someone is paid to publish the post
- The post contains exact match anchor text
- The site exists solely to publish guest posts
- The site is unrelated to yours
But what if you publish a mind-blowing guest post on an authoritative, relevant site? In my experience, that link CAN help you rank.
Nofollow .vs. Dofollow
Obviously, when it comes to SEO, you want to get normal, “dofollow” links whenever possible.
Now that you can know how to size up a link’s quality, it’s time to start building them.
Chapter 3:How to Get World-Class Links With Content Marketing
Its no secret that content is the key that unlocks amazing backlinks.
But here’s the deal:
Simply publishing content isn’t going to land you any links.
As it turns out, certain types of content work best for link building.
And here are the 4 types of content that tend to generate the most links:
#1: Visual Assets
What It Is:
Visual assets are:
- Charts and other visual-oriented pieces of content
Why It Works:
Visuals are super-duper easy to link to. For example, when you publish a chart on your site, you get a link anytime someone shares that chart on their site. This powerful “share my image and link to me when you do” relationship simply doesn’t work for text-based content.
A few years ago I published an infographic titled: On-Page SEO: Anatomy of a Perfectly Optimized Page.
To date, this infographic has been linked to a staggering 2.5 thousand times.
Sure, lots of these links would have come in even if I had described the same concepts with text.
But a good chunk of these links (I’d estimate 75%) were created because I presented key info as visual tutorial.
In fact, lots of my links came from people posting the infographic on their site (and linking back to me):
And the funny thing is, even though it’s 2018, people STILL link to my infographic a few times every month. That’s the power of creating visual assets.
#2: List Posts
What It Is:
A numbered list of tips, techniques, reasons, myths…or just about anything.
Why It Works:
List posts pack a ton value into digestible, bite-sized chunks.
In fact, when BuzzSumo analyzed 1 million articles, they discovered that list posts generated more backlinks than other content formats…outperforming quizzes, videos and even infographics.
This list post, 21 Actionable SEO Techniques You Can Use Right Now, is one of my all-time most popular pieces of content.
Yes, it’s generated a ton of shares…
But most importantly, that post is a link magnet.
It has over 5,000 links.
And because the page has so many links pointing to it, it ranks #1 in Google for the keyword “SEO Techniques”.
#3: Original Research and Data
What It Is:
Content that reveals new data from industry studies, surveys or original research.
Why It Works:
Statistics and data are highly-linkable. When someone cites your data, they link to you. These links add up QUICKLY.
Last year I published the largest Google ranking factors study ever.
Needless to say, this post contains a boatload of original data.
That’s why the post has accumulated a whopping 3.2k links in a little over a year’s time.
Like I mentioned above, most of these links come from people citing a particular statistic from our study:
#4: In-Depth Ultimate Guides
What It Is:
A comprehensive resource that covers everything there is to know about a given topic (and then some).
Why It Works:
Ultimate guides pack an insane amount of information in one place. This makes your guide THE go-to resource for that topic.
I used to get emails from people asking me for keyword research advice on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything on my blog that covered that super-important topic.
So I created one: Keyword Research for SEO: The Definitive Guide.
Because this multi-chapter guide covers keyword research like no other resource online, it’s been linked to over a thousand times.
Now that you’ve created a piece of link-worthy piece of content, it’s time to build some links.
With good ol’ fashioned email outreach.
Chapter 4:How to Build Powerful Links With Email Outreach
If you want to build white hat links in 2018 (and beyond), you need to use email outreach.
The question is:
How can you reach out to bloggers and journalists without ending up in their spam folder?
Find “Likely Linkers”
As the name suggests, Likely Linkers are people that are likely to link to you.
I’ll show you a bunch of techniques for finding Likely Linkers in Chapter 6. But for now, let’s use a simple strategy to identify them: reverse engineering.
First, search for your target keyword in Google.
Grab the URL of the first result and pop it into a link analysis tool (I’m using Ahrefs in this example).
Next, hit “backlinks” in the sidebar:
The sites listed here are all Likely Linkers.
(How do you know which sites to target and which to ignore? Check out Chapter 2).
Find Their Email Address
Now that you’ve found a Likely Linker, it’s time to dig for their email address.
Hunter.io is perfect for reaching out to small sites and one-person blogs.
Simply enter a site into the tool…
…and it’ll show you all of the email addresses associated with that domain:
But what if you want to reach out to a massive site? Combing through this list is going to be a pain.
That’s why, in those cases, I recommend VoilaNorbert.
Instead of popping in a URL, with VoilaNorbert.com you enter a person’s name and the domain they work at.
That way you’re reaching out to the person that can actually add your link to their page.
And it’ll show you that specific person’s email address.
Send Them a (Personalized) Script
If you want to scale outreach, you’ll need to use scripts.
The trick is to make your script not look like a script (more on that in the next step).
But now, here’s an example of one of my best-performing email scripts:
Hi [First Name],
I was looking for content on [Topic] today, when I stumbled on your article: [Article Title].
Good stuff! I especially enjoyed [Something specific from their article].
Also, I just published a new guide on [Your Topic]: [URL].
As someone that writes about [Topic], I thought you’d enjoy it.
My guide may also make a nice addition to your page. Either way, keep up the awesome work with [Website]!
Notice how the script allows A LOT of personalization without a whole lot of effort.
Chapter 5:The Skinny On Black Hat Link Building
(and Google Penalties)
No guide to building links would be complete without a chapter on black hat SEO.
Black hat link building is pretty easy to spot: If the links go against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, they’re probably black hat.
Does that mean you should avoid black hat link building altogether?
That’s a choice only you can make. I personally don’t recommend black hat link building (the risk doesn’t come close to justifying the reward). But it’s up to you.
That said, whether you’re a white hat or black hat SEO, you do need to know the penalties that Google dishes out.
So let’s briefly cover them:
What It Is:
An algorithmic penalty that specifically targets sites that use spammy link building techniques (like shady guest posting and blog comment spam).
How to Avoid It:
Only build white hat links. There’s data to show that you can dodge Penguin by minimizing exact match anchor text (I say anchor text is part of the story…but it’s more about trust). That said, the easiest way to avoid Penguin is to avoid shady links (regardless of anchor text).
Manual Penalty/Unnatural Links
What It Is:
A manual penalty from someone at Google. Unlike Penguin, Google will send you a message via the Google Search Console:
How To Avoid It:
No one outside of Google knows how sites get targeted for manual penalties. My take is that an algorithm spots a website that’s potentially gaming the system. And they bubble that site up to someone at Google for a manual review. So the best way to avoid a manual penalty is to have a squeaky-clean link profile.
Chapter 6:My Three Favorite Link Building Strategies (Step-By-Step Tutorials)
No intro needed for this chapter.
Here are 3 of my battle-tested strategies for building lots of world-class backlinks:
Resource Page Link Building
First off: what are resource pages?
Resource pages are pages that link out to awesome content on a given topic.
Here’s an example:
Because these pages exist for the sole purpose of linking out, they make PERFECT link building targets.
With that, here’s the step-by-step process:
Find Resource Pages
Use these search strings in Google. They’re designed specifically to unearth resource pages:
“Keyword” + inurl:links
“Keyword” + “helpful resources”
“Keyword” + “useful resources”
“Keyword” + “useful links”
Size Up The Page
Here’s where you (quickly) answer the question:
“Is a link from this page worth the effort?”.
(Hint: Use the tips from Chapter 2 to make this step a breeze)
For example, this resource page has a decent URLRating of 12.
It’s also on an authoritative domain.
And my link will end up somewhere on the body of the page. Looks like a winner!
Find “Best Fit” Content
Your content can be the best in the world…
…but if it’s not a good fit for that resource page?
You’re not gonna get a link.
So for this step, find content on your site that’ll fit that resource page like a glove.
Once you’ve ID’d that content, move onto step #4.
Send This Tested Script
Here’s the script I recommend:
Subject: Question about [Their Website]
I was Googling around for content about [Topic] this morning, when I came across your excellent resource page: [URL].
I just wanted to say that your page helped me a ton. I would have never found the [Resource They Link To] without it.
It’s funny: I recently published a guide on [Topic] last month. It’s [Brief Description].
Here it is in case you’d like to check it out: [URL].
Also, my guide might make a nice addition to your page.
Either way, thanks for putting together your list of resources. And have a great day!
Pro Tip: Like all outreach scripts, make sure to personalize this script as much as possible. You can use a script as long as it doesn’t LOOK like a script.
Broken Link Building
Broken Link Building is one of my all-time favorite link building strategies.
Instead of straight-up begging for links, with Broken Link Building, you add value to someone’s website.
Here’s how to do it:
Install Check My Links or LinkMiner
Both of these tools quickly find broken links on any page (from within your Chrome Browser).
I’ll show you how to use them in a minute.
Find Pages With Lots of Outbound Links
The more links a page has, the more likely one of them will be broken.
Resource pages work great here. So feel free to use the search strings above to bring up resource pages.
But instead of emailing the site owner right away, try step #3…
Check For Broken Links
Here’s where you run the extension you installed in the first step.
They’ll reveal broken links on that page:
Email The Site Owner About Their Broken Link
Finally, let the person that runs that page about their broken link (or links), and pitch a resource from your site as a replacement.
Here’s the script I recommend:
Subject: Problem with [Their Site’s Name]
Are you still updating your site?
I was searching for content on [Topic] when I came across your excellent page: [Page Title or URL].
However, I noticed a few links didn’t seem to be working:
[URLs of broken links]
Also, I recently published [Brief Content Pitch]. It may make a good replacement for the [Point Out a Specific Broken Link].
Either way, I hope this helped you out 🙂
The Skyscraper Technique
This video will walk you through the step-by-step process:
Once you watch the video, it’s time for the next chapter:
Awesome link building case studies!
Chapter 7:Incredible Case Studies
Now it’s time for me to show you real-life examples of link building in action.
The best part?
I’ve never shared any of these case studies before.
Case Study #1
How Julie Used The Skyscraper Technique to Boost Organic Traffic By 194.1%
Julie Adams’ blog, Our Beautiful Planet, was struggling.
Sure, Julie was publishing great content. But in her words: “No matter how awesome my content was, no links came.”
That’s when Julie decided to try The Skyscraper Technique.
So instead of publishing another piece of great content…she created something AMAZING. Here it is:
And instead of publishing this content and hoping for the best, Julie used email outreach to build backlinks.
And this landed her a handful of links from authority sites in the science space:
These white hat backlinks boosted her organic traffic by a legit 194.1%:
Why does The Skyscraper Technique work so well?
Case Study #2
Broken Link Building Pays Off
Last year I decided to run a broken link building campaign. So I followed the steps that I outlined in the last chapter.
First, I used search strings to bring up pages with lots of outbound links.
And I used Check My Links to find links that weren’t working.
Then I emailed the person in charge of that content to give them a heads up about broken links that I found:
(Note how uber-personalized that email is)
When they replied, I sent them the URL of the broken link…and a piece of content from Backlinko that would be a 1:1 replacement:
And most folks were more than happy to add my link:
Case Study #3
How Richard Used Guestographics to Get a First Page Ranking
Last year Rich Edwards published this infographic on his site:
Most people would just sit back and HOPE that people linked to their infographic.
But Rich knew that Guestographics can help turn high-quality infographics into high-quality backlinks.
So Rich reached out to tech sites that would be interested in checking it out.
When they said: “Yes, I’d like to see it”, Rich offered a unique intro to make the re-publishing process easier.
Because Rich provided so much value, most tech bloggers happily agreed to publish his infographic on their site:
It took work to reach out to all of these bloggers and journalists. But the hard work paid off.
Rich landed 21 backlinks from this campaign.
And thanks to these contextual links, Rich’s site now ranks #2 in Google for his target keyword.
Case Study #4
How Matt Built Links to His Ecommerce Site
Let’s face it:
Link building for ecommerce sites isn’t easy.
But it’s possible. Just look at Matt Lawry.
Like most ecommerce site owners, Matt had trouble building links to his ecommerce website (an Australian site focused on gifts).
After all, who wants to link to a site made up of 100% product pages? That’s when Matt realized that he could use content to generate links to his ecommerce site.
Specifically, Matt published an amazing piece of Skyscraper content on his site: “Australian Gin: The Ultimate Guide”.
Of course, Matt didn’t sit back and wait for the links to roll in. He promoted his content via email outreach:
Because Matt reached out to the right people (and sent them personalized emails), many people OFFERED to link to his guide.
And all of these links boosted Matt’s rankings for a keyword that directly results in sales for his ecommerce site: Australian Gin.
In fact, he ranks #2 in Google Australia for that keyword (and has the “#0” Answer Box result):
Chapter 8:Advanced Link Building Tips
Here’s a quick list of advanced link building tips that I’ve picked up over the years.
Get Easy Links With Link Reclamation
Whenever someone mentions your brand in an article, they link to you…right?
I mean, they should link to you. But it doesn’t always happen.
Here’s what I mean:
But with a gentle nudge, most site owners are happy to turn your unlinked mention into a link.
How do you find these unlinked mentions? BuzzSumo works great.
Get “Bonus” Links With Reverse Image Search
Do you publish visual assets like infographics and charts?
If so, there are probably sites using your images without attribution right now.
Don’t freak out. In fact, you should celebrate. Just like with link reclamation, a friendly email can turn many of these opportunities into links.
And you can use Google reverse image search to find peeps that are using your images without a link:
Send Emails In the Afternoon
Here’s one thing I’ve learned from sending THOUSANDS of outreach emails:
Send your outreach emails in the afternoon (in the recipient’s local time).
When you send your message in the morning, it gets lumped together with the 93 other emails that person has to deal with.
But when you send in the afternoon, there’s much less competition in the inbox.
I recommend using a tool like Boomerang to help time your outreach emails:
Create Visualizations of Concepts, Ideas and Strategies
Here’s an example of this in action from Backlinko:
Believe it or not, but lots of people have linked to me thanks to this simple illustration:
Why does this work so well?
Well I COULD have simply described the APP formula with text. But the problem with that approach is that your description is much less shareable.
On the other hand, when you create a visual, you have something that bloggers will happily use in their content (and link to you when they do).
Send Out Feeler Emails Before Going For the Close
Should you ask for a link in your first outreach email to someone?
Short answer: maybe.
You may get better results with a two-step process (Backlinko reader Mike found that feeler emails CRUSHED asking for a link straightaway):
The other benefit of this approach is that it saves you TIME. Instead of personalizing outreach messages that no one will ever read, send brief “feeler” emails.
Then personalize the heck out of your next series of messages.
Get Interviewed on Podcasts
Yes, guest post links have their place.
But they have one big problem: they take a ton of time to write!
Enter: podcasting. Instead of outlining, drafting and editing a guest post, you just show up and talk about what you know. And – boom! — you get a link.
The best part?
There are podcasts on EVERY topic.
Here’s an example of a link I recently built by appearing on a podcast:
Use “Link Intersect” To Uncover Likely Linkers
If someone links to your competitor, they’re likely to link to you…right?
And if someone links to TWO of your competitors, they’re even more likely to link to you.
How can you find sites that links to more than one of your competitors?
Ahrefs Link Intersect Tool.
Just list out 2-3 of your biggest competitors.
And this nifty tool will show you who links to all of ‘em.
Use “Pre-Curated” Lists of Link Targets
There’s no denying it:
Finding high-quality link targets is HARD.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that someone else already curated these high-quality sites for you…
…in the form of “best blog” lists.
Here’s an example:
Needless to say, if you run a baking blog, every single one of the sites listed here would make a great link opportunity.
You can find lists like these using search strings like: “best [topic] blogs” or “list of [topic] blogs”.