Link Outreach Approach & Example Emails

There are a lot of different ideas about what kind of tone to set in your outreach emails. I’ve developed a strategy that works well for me, but it’s certainly not the only way to compose an outreach email.

To begin with, however, there are a few rules of outreach emails that are absolutely essential. Breaking any of these is almost guaranteeing that you won’t get a mention or a link, and may well give the blogger a bad impression of your site, making it unlikely you’ll get a link from your future efforts either.

  • Keep it short: the hardest part of outreach emails is keeping them short and to the point, while still trying to be compelling. In general you want no more than 3 paragraphs, and only one of those should be of any significant length. I’d suggest a word count of no higher than 100 words and preferably less. A big wall of text is rarely read, no matter how awesome the content you’re sharing is.
  • Don’t screw up their info: It may be better to use the bloggers name and the site name, and it may not make a big difference. But what will certainly hurt you is if you call them by the wrong name, or call their site by a different name, or leave something like NAME HERE in the email. That is a sure sign that you are mass emailing off of a template. Personally, I often use templates that I personalize, but I make sure the template is written in a way that if I forget to insert the blog name, it still reads well.
  • Don’t attach anything: Unsolicited attachments are almost always viruses or malware. So if you send an unsolicited email to someone with an attachment, they are going to be far, far more likely to think that you are a spammer trying to infect their machine. You can include a link to graphics or files that you want to share, but don’t attach them to the email.
  • Make it timely: If you launch an awesome piece of content, be sure that you reach out to all of your prospect that day or the next. I’ve screwed this up, spreading my contacts out over a week, and almost none of the later ones linked to the content. I got a reply from one saying, “Yeah, I saw this making the rounds earlier in the week.” Bloggers don’t want to look like they’re posting about old news, so time your content launch for a time when you have room on your calendar to do your outreach.

Aside from these rules, the rest is a matter of testing different approaches and find what works best for you.

My Approach:

My personal style is to be very humble and honest, and to avoid insincere flattery. I introduce myself and my site and point out that I made something they might be interested in for their site. Then I will say one or two specific things about the content that I hope will catch their attention. I also usually apologize for emailing them out of the blue and interrupting their day.

I absolutely do not try to talk about how amazing my site is or the content is — I’m not bragging, but shyly sharing something I’m proud of.

I also make it a firm rule never to even say the word “link.” I might ask them to share the content with their readers, but I’m far more likely to say it’s something I thought they might be interested in, or be interested in for their site. SEO spam is rampant in email inboxes today, and you don’t want to sound anything like that spam.

I always try to close the email with something friendly like an offer to help, and another little piece of humble.

I’ve spent a lot of my life with my email address on various high-profile sites, and as a result I get a lot of spam. I’m used to all the slimy fake-sounding spam emails that make the rounds, and I suspect this is why I go for the honest and humble approach.

Here’s a sample outreach email I used for a piece of content on AwesomeDice.com. I had nearly a 30% conversion rate with this (helped by the fact that the content was actually pretty awesome in the eyes of the target audience):

Hey, this is Brian with Awesome Dice. We just finished running an analysis of over 10,000 dice rolls to determine whether gaming dice really roll randomly, and if precision dice are really better than standard ones. I was hoping you’d consider giving this a shout-out on the site!

The rolling analysis can be found here: http://www.awesomedice.com/blog/353/d20-dice-randomness-test-chessex-vs-gamescience/

Thanks for your consideration, and if there’s ever anything I can do for you, please drop me a line!

Brian

Awesome Dice
www.awesomedice.com

Most of my outreach emails these days are some variation on this template. Notice the effort to be humble, pointing out key interesting things about the content, and the extra friendliness at the end.

Here is a generic outreach template that I used when I launched Awesome Dice. For this I specifically targeted blogs on my list that I thought were likely to just give a blogroll link, based on the tone of their blog and whether they talked a lot about dice. If you’re going to just straight-up beg for links with no link bait, this is the approach that I like best. Note that it is short and filled with humble – and I actually gathered a good 20 links off of this alone!

Hey, this is Brian with AwesomeDice.com, and I’m emailing you out of the blue (and sorry about that) to ask if you’d consider giving us a shout-out on your site, or perhaps adding our blog (www.awesomedice.com/blog/) to your blogroll. As you can probably imagine, we’re big gamers and we sell dice, as well as blog about all things RPGs.

Thanks for your consideration, and sorry again for bugging you out of the blue. If there’s ever anything I can do for you, please drop me a line!

Brian

Awesome Dice
www.awesomedice.com

Other Approaches:

Again, my way isn’t the only way. Many sites will recommend that you say something about a recent article they wrote on their blog, as a way of proving that you’ve actually read their site, such as:

Hi, I loved the article you wrote the other day about dressing cats up as lobsters and using them for deep sea fishing bait. I recently wrote an article about using cats as bear bait that I thought you’d like. My article can be found at www.domain.com/meow-roar-this-is-so-wrong.html

If you like it maybe you could share it on your site?

The goal of this approach is to distance yourself from spam bots, and to imply that you read their site. Of course, if you don’t actually read their blog this is a bit disingenuous, and a lot of spam emails now try to make the same approach in an automated way. What’s worse, lots of non-automated spam from crappy SEOs uses this approach now too, so it’s starting to look formulaic.

On the other hand, many people still swear by it

Another common bit of advice is to tell the blogger why it would be good for them to feature your content, or to link to you. I am completely against this tactic: other than the fact that it’s usually lies, this kind of hard sell will automatically make a bunch of sites hate you and your site, and I cannot imagine it really converts that well. But the danger is that even if it does convert, the guys who don’t bite are going to be far less likely to link to any of your future efforts — they may well mark your email as spam to ensure they never even see future emails from you.

The Super Hard (and Authentic) Approach

The final most hard-core personalization approach suggests that you never even email someone until you already have established a relationship with them. When you see a blog you want to get a link from, you first follow them on social media. Make a couple meaningful comments on their posts. Retweet them and reply to their tweets with comments that propel the conversation. Try to get into conversations with the blogger. After doing this for a while (months), when you finally introduce yourself in your outreach email, there is already an existing relationship and the email doesn’t seem like spam at all.

If done carefully and well, I can totally see this approach having an awesome conversion rate. But it’s also a massive time investment. Honestly I have more profitable ways to spend my time and prefer to stick to the cold emails.

Don’t get me wrong, if there’s a blog that I really do like and read, I will go out of my way to try to form a relationship with the blogger. But I don’t have the attitude to go be friends with everyone in the community. If you do, or know someone who does, this approach is great for you, providing you have the time to invest in advance of publishing your link worthy content.

Ultimately you’re going to be sending a lot of these out, so choose an approach and tone that you’re comfortable with and that reflects well on your brand.

Leveraging Your Blog: Blogroll Requests

Having a regularly updated blog on your site with a decent history of posts can be valuable in link outreach. A lot of the best link acquisition tactics are based around producing content that other sites want to link to, and a blog gives you a logical place to publish all that content.

But more than that, all those small and medium sites you sifted through in your prospecting that had blogrolls might well add you to their blogroll as well. This gives you the advantage of a sitewide link — a link that is usually on every page of their site — which maximizes the PageRank that flows to your site. (Some sitewide links can look spammy, but blogroll links are good links, and a standard within the blogging community).

 

Asking for a Blogroll Link

The best way to ask for a blogroll link is in an email promoting another piece of content you created and published on your blog. So if you put together an interactive map showing the preferred dog breeds in each major city in the US, you could email dog bloggers (there are more than you’d think) and tell them about your neat map, then also ask for a blogroll link if they think it would be a good fit.

It’s worth noting that before you ask for a blogroll link, you should first ensure that you’re blog has a decent amount of good quality content (a minimum of 12 good articles). No one is going to put up a blogroll link to a blog with only a few posts.

Link Outreach: Building Your Prospect List

Just about everything beyond the low hanging fruit is going to involve outreach in some way. You will have to get in contact with bloggers or journalists that are relevant to your site and promote your site, or more specifically, the awesome content on your site.

This is the hard part of SEO. It’s very manual and time consuming (and for good reason — as we’ve seen everything you can successfully automate gets penalized eventually). This is what professional link building companies do, and if you truly want to succeed in organic search, it’s what you need to do as well.

Finding Your Linkerati

The very first step here is to build a contact list of your prospects. In any given industry, there are a collection of sites and blogs that make up the vast majority of links that any site in the industry gets. We call these the linkerati.

You need to go on a search for bloggers who blog about a topic relevant to your site. This doesn’t have to be a 100% perfect fit, but it does have to be pretty close. For example, when I was starting my site AwesomeDice.com I didn’t go looking for sites that blogged about dice — there weren’t any of those other than competitors. Instead I looked for sites that blogged about tabletop gaming and Dungeons and Dragons. These are the sites that all my dice customers were going to read, so those are the sites that would be relevant.

Determining what your linkerati is going to be can be difficult, especially for B2B type businesses. In some cases, there is literally no blog community of any size around an industry (this is pretty rare, but common in the industrial industries). In that case you might need to think about what kind of content you can create that can cross over into another community.

For example, I once worked with a CNC machine shop. The owner did a lot of work on off-road 4×4 trucks, and was involved in the community. So we leveraged that connection and suggested he produce content about modding trucks for these races. The content was relevant because it was all services that his machine shop offered, but it crossed over into a linkerati community completely unrelated to machining.

I had another client that actually manufactured CNC machines. I leveraged my geeky background & connections and suggested they create a time-lapse video of a CNC machine machining a stainless steel block into a Darth Vader helmet. That’s a video that I know would have mass appeal to the geek crowd and get shared all over, and again is relevant to their products. (I left the agency before the video was made, so I don’t know if they followed through).

The point here is that you can usually find a way to access a blog community for just about any site. Consider what products or services or information the site offers and who would use that information and what they would use it for. Both of those questions can lead to relevant blog communities.

Finding Sites

Once you know the kind of sites that you’re after, you then need to start finding the sites. There are some paid tools that help with this, but you can get pretty far along just using Google. My preferred paid tool for this is GroupHigh, which saves you a lot of time, but will also cost you nearly $1,000 per month. You can get nearly all of the info manually, spending more time instead of more money. There are three main ways to track down prospects:

  1. Use a Google search, or a Google Blog Search (which should only return blog results, and can be found at www.google.com/blogsearch). Search for your topic and comb through the results looking for good sites. You can use advanced search operators to narrow things. For example, if you’re looking for knitting blogs you might search for “blog intitle:knitting” — that searches for the word “blog” and only returns results where the word “knitting” is in the title of the page. You can also look for the word knitting in the actual URL with “inurl: knitting” Expect to go through hundreds of results at this stage. You want to build a comprehensive contact list here. The best results are small to medium blogs — giant sites are much harder to contact and get exposure from, but you should certainly include them on your list as well.
  2. When you find those small and medium blogs in your Google search, look for blogrolls — the list of recommended sites that often lives on the sidebar of blogs. This will generally include links to many other closely related sites (and some not related ones). Add all those related sites to your list as well.
  3. Use a backlink discovery tool like Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO (we talk about these in Tools & Analysis on page xxx) to find the sites that link to the small and medium blogs you’ve found (this usually isn’t very useful for very large sites). The sites linking to these blogs are very often also related sites that are a part of the linkerati for that industry. Be aware there will be plenty of junk links in there too – remember you’re only looking for quality blogs and sites, not directories or press release/article spinning sites.

As you look at the sites, first evaluate it: is the site spammy? Does it look like it was written by a computer program or is it filled with ads or just look untrustworthy? You don’t want to pursue links from obviously spammy sites. Also check out the date of the most recent post, at the top of the homepage — if the blog hasn’t been updated in months, chances are that the blogger has stopped updating the site and this isn’t a good prospect. Some people evaluate blogs based on the PageRank of the home page, or the Domain Authority as measured by various companies. I do not recommend this: you want to get links from every site that isn’t spammy, regardless of the PageRank.

A site is a good prospect if it is relevant to the topic, seems like it’s decent quality (not spammy) and has been updated within the past month.

Finding Contact Info

With each good site that you find, record in your spreadsheet the name of the site, the URL of the site, the name of the site author if you can find it, and the contact info for the site. For smaller blogs contact info can sometimes be hard to find.

After going through this process for a lot of sites, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s not worth going to extreme measures to find contact info (like looking up the whois) — if a site owner makes it really hard to find their email address, odds are they aren’t going to respond to you contacting them anyway.

Here are the simple steps I go through to find the contact info:

  • Look in the main navigation for a link to a Contact page or an About page. Look through those pages for a contact email or a contact form
  • Hit Control-F and do a search for the words “contact,” “about,” and “email” on the home page and the about page. Be aware that “email” often gets lots of false positives from sites that advertise signing up for email subscriptions, or sharing posts via email
  • Search for “Profile” — this is a common area to find contact info for blogs hosted by blogspot.
  • Failing those, look for social media links. If a blogger gives their Twitter account, you can always contact her that way

In a perfect world you really want an email address, but any kind of contact method works, even social media.

There are some tools out there to help you find contact info for a site: I’ve never used any of them, mostly because I generally haven’t had much luck pitching sites who make their contact info hard to find in the first place.

Learn While Building Your List

While you’re going through this process, you can also be learning about your potential audience. Keep an eye out for recurring themes that you see discussed on the blogs: you may be able to make use of that in future content you create.

Also keep an eye out for very authoritative blogs: blogs that get very large numbers of comments on all their posts, and those sites that it seems like everyone is linking to, that are on every blogroll. These are major influencers, and if you’re going to be marketing within this community, these are the guys that you want to know about. Bookmark those sites and make a point to read their blogs regularly. Follow them on social media. Try to interact with them in comments and in social media — these are guys who can give you great insight into the community in which you’ll be marketing, and who you want to be able to leverage to get great exposure. They can provide not only links, but high quality traffic and brand awareness. So start building that relationship now, so when you want something it will be more than a random email out of the blue.

The process of building a prospect list like this is long, slow, and painful. This is the biggest grind of SEO research, but it’s also absolutely vital. You don’t want to skip steps or take shortcuts here, because you’ll be leveraging this list over and over during your authority building.

If you have a new site or are entering a new community, you probably don’t want to offload this work to someone else (tempting though it is). The process of finding all these sites also gives you a pretty good overview of the blog community you’re going to be leveraging. If you are not already very well versed in the community, the discovery process will help you understand how to produce content that is capable of attracting links.

I like to break this process down into small bite-sized chunks. I will do research for one hour a day, every day, until I’ve exhausted my options. I just find that I cannot sit down for eight hours at a stretch building a prospect list.

Do whatever works for you to build the most comprehensive list possible of every active blog in your target community. These are your linkerati, the sites whose links you need to be able to rank at the top of Google.

Low Hanging Fruit #2: Leverage Relationships

The next step in your link acquisition effort is to leverage existing relationships to get links. This means talking to anyone you know or have a working relationship with who has a website, and asking them to toss a link to you (to your home page, with the site name as the anchor text).

If you have a new site, you want to ask all of your friends to link to you even if they don’t have a site: they can link to you via social media or in forums they frequent. Keep in mind a new site needs a healthy mix of nofollow links.

Business Relationships

Remember to consider all of your business relationships at this stage. Often vendors or suppliers will be willing to link to you from somewhere on their site. Manufacturers often have “where to buy” pages listing their retailers. Some will refuse to link to you — and that’s fine, you won’t get them all (you probably won’t even get most of them). But every one that you do get will help.

Every company you do business with — with the likely exception of banks or other financial institutions — is a company that might be willing to link to yours. Any company that you pay for a service or product is even more likely to link to you, because they want your money and want you to be happy. If you exhibit at trade shows, or contribute to conventions, those will almost always include a link to your site.

Other Relationships

If your business sponsors a little league team or participates in any kind of charitable work, ask for a link from those places. Local charities are particularly good about this: sponsoring local walks or 5ks or bike rides are all great opportunities to be recognized and to build up your domain authority by doing the kinds of things that real companies do.

Be vigilant about leveraging all options. Perhaps you volunteer at a non-profit that has a bio of you up on their site. Get a link from that bio. Talk to the company that cleans your office: offer to give them a glowing testimonial to put on their site and there’s good odds that they’ll link to you when they post it.

A few things to remember when leveraging relationships for links:

  • Ask for a link to your homepage. Don’t go trying to get sneaky and use this to build links to money pages. The goal here is to build domain authority and help build an organic link profile.
  • The anchor text of the link should be your site name, your URL, or an image (your logo). Absolutely do not ask for money keywords in the anchor text — that will look spammy.

Never offer compensation for links. If the site owner says no, that’s fine, just move on. If they offer to put the link up for a price, let them know that your company/site policy forbids you from compensating anyone in exchange for a link.

Low Hanging Fruit #1: Links You Already Have

This applies only to existing sites that have been around for a while — if you’re starting a new site move on to the next section.

One of the things that I find constantly when I review the SEO of sites is backlinks pointing to dead pages. At some point in the history of the site, a page earned some links from other sites, but later that page was removed. Now those links are pointing at a dead, 404 error page and the links don’t count.

There is no easier way to get links than to just take credit for the links you already have!

This is one of the first things I look at when I start working on authority building for a new site. I estimate that about 70% of every site I’ve worked on had dead back links. They are literally throwing links away.

This happens with almost any kind of site as it ages if they don’t have a strong 301 policy in place. When I started at one major ecommerce brand and did this evaluation, I learned that 28% of all the links pointing to the site were pointing to dead pages — that is hundreds of thousands of links from thousands of linking domains. For that giant site, the benefit of just putting 301s in place was estimated at about $30 million per year.

How to Find Dead Backlinks

Here’s how you can identify dead pages on your site that have links pointing to them:

  1. Create an Excel spreadsheet listing every back link to your site. Get these from as many sources as possible, including Google Webmaster Tools, referrer logs, Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, Ahrefs, and any other link database you subscribe to.
  2. Remove everything except the target page that the link points to. You should end up with a list of URLs of your site (not URLs of sites where the link lives).
  3. Remove duplicates.
  4. Save as a CSV
  5. Download Screaming Frog from www.screamingfrog.co.uk/seo-spider/. Just install the free version.
  6. Set Screaming Frog to “List” mod
    Screaming Frog list mode
  7. Import your .csv of pages on your site that links are pointing to and have Screaming Frog crawl it.
  8. When it’s done, export the result.
  9. Sort the resulting spreadsheet by server status code. Anything with a 404 is a dead page that has at least one link pointing to it. It’s also a good idea to make sure you don’t have any 302s on there that shouldn’t be and any other kind of 400 or 500 error code, but mostly you’re concerned with 404 codes (not found).
  10. Create 301 redirects from every one of those dead pages to the live page on your site that makes the most sense. 301 redirects and how they work will be discussed on this site later. Note that you should be redirecting to a logical place (similar product, article, or category) not to a completely unrelated page; redirecting to your home page usually offers little or no benefit.

Most sites that have been around and actively updating for at least a year or two will find dead pages. These are free links, which is why this should be your first stop in any link building effort.

A Link Building Safety Review

Okay, I promise we’re finally about to start talking about how to actually go out and get links for your site. But first, let’s take a moment and do a quick safety review to make sure that you aren’t going to hurt yourself.

  1. Do you deserve to rank? Remember this is our number one factor. It is not going to do you much good to put tons and tons of work into link acquisition only to have Google realize that most users leave your site within a minute of arriving. Because if you don’t deserve to rank and can’t satisfy the long click, then Google will start demoting you in rankings despite your efforts. And also remember that you need actual organic links that you didn’t go out and build in addition to your built links… and that’s only going to happen if you have a site that deserves to rank.
  2. Diversify your link building. Do not pursue any single technique exclusively. You need lots of different kinds of links from different types of sites (as well as nofollow and social media links that won’t actually help you rank, because that’s what a natural link profile looks like).
  3. Don’t break the rules. Even if it looks so easy, even if your competition is doing it, even if you’ve done it before and didn’t get caught. Avoid the tactics on the list of tactics to avoid. Unless your business model involves throwing your site away in a couple months if and when you get penalized, it’s not worth the chance.

I’m not saying all these things to be a prude, or to make your life difficult. Link acquisition is the most powerful tool in the SEO toolbox, and as a result it’s the most closely policed by Google. If you misuse these tools you can ruin your business overnight.

Okay, enough said. Let’s get started on the real work of SEO.

How Many Links Do I Need? The Grizzly Solution

One of the most common questions people ask once they understand the importance of links and authority-building is: how many links do I need to rank?

In some ways this is an immensely complicated question, and in others it’s very simple. I like to offer the Grizzly Solution in the form of the kind of word problem we used to get in math class:

The Grizzly Solution:

Grizzly bear

Let us imagine that you and I are taking a stroll in beautiful Yellowstone National Park. We are all alone in a large field when we hear a startling noise from the tree line. We turn to look and a fully grown grizzly bear, ursus horribilus, comes crashing out and charges straight at us, roaring with fury.

The fight or flight instinct takes over in both of our brains: we scream a high-pitched shriek and run for our lives. There’s no way we’re fighting that.

Now, a fully grow adult grizzly bear can run at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. So how fast do I have to run to avoid getting eaten by the bear?

Think about it for a moment: how fast do I need to run? If you answered 31 miles per hour, you chose… poorly.

The answer, of course, is that I just have to run faster than you. The bear catches you first, and I flee into the sunset while you get munched. And it’s the same with links: you need more than your competition.

Quantity & Quality

Of course, as we know by now, it’s not just a matter of the quantity of links that our site and our pages have. The quality of the links is even more important. We need to look not just at the raw number of links, but at the number of linking domains, at the authority of those domains, how related those pages and sites are to our site, the position of the links on the page, how much PageRank is flowing out of each of those links: the overall mix of link characteristics.

This, as you can see, is where it becomes immensely complicated. A page with a dozen linking domains can absolutely outrank a page with a hundred linking domains, if those dozen are better links, or more topically relevant links.

You can never say with certainty how many links you need because you can’t say with certainty exactly what the qualities of the links you’ll acquire are. It’s not just a matter of X PageRank 3 links and Y PageRank 4 links.

But from the big picture, the best rough estimate is that you probably want more linking domains than your competition (both to your site, and to your target page). Just know that higher quality links can allow you to rank faster, and low quality links may not count for anything at all.

And from the very big picture, the answer is that you always want more links.

Authority: The Rich Get Richer

Building links to new sites is exceptionally difficult, and exponentially more important than almost any other SEO activity (other than having a good site). One of the unfortunate truths of the SEO world is that the rich get richer.

By this we mean that the sites with the most links also attract the most new links.

This happens because a site with a lot of links is vastly more likely to rank highly in the search results. Because of that they get massively more traffic. And because vastly more people find the site, they’re more likely to link to it. After all, a blogger that has never heard of your site can’t possibly link to it.

The Rich Getting Richer in Example

Perhaps a blogger is writing an article about baking apple pie. He decides to link to an apple orchard directory — of course the blogger knows about his local orchards, but isn’t aware of a nation-wide directory. So in the interest of making the most useful post the blogger hops on Google and does a search. The first result is indeed a national orchard directory and is good enough, so the blogger links to it.

End result: the rich get richer. That orchard directory got the link because it was ranking at the top of the results, not necessarily because it was the greatest orchard directory out there. Even if another site was much better, it didn’t have a chance to earn the link.

A Steep Climb for New Sites

New site owners usually feel this is horribly unfair, and in a way it is. But it’s also the method that yields the least spam and most relevant search result for every search engine out there.

This is why it can take so long for a new site to get started — in fact I’ve known SEOs who refused to work on new sites at all. It’s also why link acquisition is so vital for new or otherwise unknown sites. If you can just get your site so that it starts to rank anywhere on the first page for even your long tail phrases, then you can start to attract users to your awesome site and increase the odds of getting organic links in the future.

Of course, since the guys who are already ranking on top are getting far more organic links without any effort, you have to acquire links substantially faster than they are. That means either having a site that is hugely superior in most ways (including design, usability, navigation, selection, information, pricing, etc.) or doing better link acquisition campaigns.

I don’t mean to imply that if you’re starting a new site that you’re screwed. This is not the case. I am saying that you should have realistic expectations: you will have to work hard to develop a great site and link worthy content, then promote that content.

You should also expect it to be a slow process. Very, few new sites can be ranking at the top of results within a year. That’s usually only possible for relatively low competition niches, and then often when you have a leg up (existing relationships with big sites).

But the good news is that you can also expect to see steady progress. Your traffic won’t skyrocket overnight; instead it will slowly increase from month to month. Every two or three months, if you’re working hard and smart, you’ll hit a new plateau of increased organic traffic.

The Organic Link Profile

Every site has a link profile, a footprint of the kinds of backlinks the site has. A typical, legitimately organic site will have links from other blogs, from social media, from forums and blog comments, from all kinds of different sources. There will be a bunch of nofollow links in addition to the ones that pass PageRank. Most of the anchor text of those links will be the name of the site, or the URL of the site; some anchor text will be junk (like “click here”); some will be images; a very small amount will be keyword rich. More of the links will point to the home page (and/or blog home page) than any other page. Most of the links will be good ones, and some will be spammy.

Every site collects some amount of spammy links through no fault of their own. Various directories search for sites to seed into their directories, scraper sites swipe content from around the web, etc. As long as your links aren’t overwhelmingly spammy, or suspiciously spammy, you’ll be just fine.

No Formula for Organic Link Footprint

There is no single formula for what an organic link profile looks like: different industries have different footprints, and even within those industries different sites will have very different link profiles based on their perception in the market, their products/services, and their marketing.

When you encounter a site in which all of the links have been built for SEO purposes, it’s very obvious — and I mean that it’s obvious to experienced SEOs. It’s far more obvious to Google webspam engineers.

What’s more, non-organic link profiles always, always have some kind of a footprint. Often it’s obvious from the anchor text, or the fact that a disproportionate number of links are of the same type (blog links, footer links, site wide links, directory links, etc).

It is actually possible to create a suspicious link profile even by doing only white hat link building, so it’s important to understand two things about the organic link profile:

  1. No link acquisition tactics should ever account for the majority of your links. You should be doing a lot of different things to get links and not relying on any one tactic exclusively. It’s tempting when you find something that works to scale it up and put all your efforts behind it. You must resist.
  2. This is the tough one that SEOs never want to hear: you cannot build an organic link profile. To have an organic profile, you need to legitimately get links from people that you haven’t asked or enticed into linking. Completely strangers should link to your site because it’s worth linking to. The purpose of link acquisition in SEO is to boost your performance beyond the power of your raw organic links, or to get your site a start so it can get to place where it can acquire links naturally. Ultimately to have an organic link profile, you need to get organic links in addition to whatever links you pursue via your SEO efforts. The way to do that is to have a great site that’s truly useful to a lot of people, and to market your site so that people discover it in the first place.

Link acquisition is still a vital part of SEO — for many SEO teams it’s the only part — but it should not account for 100% of the links to your site, or even 50% of them.

New Sites Are Delicate and Fragile

There’s an exception here for new sites (or old sites with no links who have never done any marketing). A brand new site is usually effectively invisible in Google’s rankings: and if you don’t have other marketing avenues no one is going to discover the site. And of course if no one ever sees it, they can’t decide to link to it. However, new sites need to be extra cautious about the first chunk of links they attract: at this stage it’s incredibly easy to create a suspicious link profile. So new sites need to be sure that they’re getting nofollow links that don’t help rankings in addition to the regular links. They need social media links as well as editorial blog links.

In general, the more organic links a site has, the more aggressively they can pursue additional links. And there are a lot of link building tactics that blur the line between SEO and just building a great site (which is the great thing about good SEO — it’s almost always good for the user).

If you create some stunningly awesome article about sledding down the tallest mountains in the world for the purposes of attracting links and it goes viral, gets reported in major news sites and all over the web… those are organic links, even though you created the article specifically to attract links. Now those first hundred blogs that you emailed about the article, those links are also organic, but not the kind of 100% organic links that ensure you have an organic link profile.

Of course if you run a site about investing advice, that mountain sledding article and those links are suddenly a lot less organic looking — whereas if your site sell sleds, or mountain climbing guides, then that is spot on.

But the more you look at building your entire site with the idea of making it link worthy, the more you blur that SEO line and the more successful you will be in your SEO efforts.

Truly great authority-building SEO is just a matter of making truly great sites that users love, with awesome content that’s so cool people want to share it, and then telling people about your site and your content.

Your Competitors Might Be Assholes & Tempt You to the Dark Side

I’m going to be upfront with you and tell you the hardest part of this: some of your competitors are probably doing one or more of the tactics I said you shouldn’t use and getting away with it. It happens all the time and it’s frustrating as all hell, but you still have to resist the urge to jump over to the dark side.

This is one of the most common things we hear at SEO agencies when a site owner comes to us with a penalized site. The site owner starts learning a little bit about SEO. They see that their competitors are buying links, or doing article marketing, or guest blogging everywhere. And that competitor is outranking them on the weight of those naughty links.

So the site owner figures that’s what they have to do to compete and they start dabbling. They buy a few links, and guess what? It works! Their rankings go up, so they do more and more. Eventually of course they get penalized, lose all the traffic they gained plus all the traffic that they had to start with, and go running to a SEO agency for help. And sometimes — not always, but sometimes — their competitors are still ranking great despite doing the same things.

You have to prepare yourself for this, and you have to resist the urge to cheat yourself. Unless you have the kind of business where you can just throw away your site when it’s penalized (there are in fact businesses built on this) it’s not worth the risk.

If your competitor is playing dirty, you still have to follow the rules — you just have to be smarter than they are.

And I can tell you from experience that it feels great to outrank someone despite their cheating ways. And it feels even better when, a few months or years down the road, Google finally catches up with them and they get penalized into oblivion while you continue to rank.