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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.

Link Tactics to Avoid Because They Will Get You Penalized

The reason we want to avoid certain link building practices is because eventually Google could discover what we’re doing — either algorithmically or due to a manual review — and penalize the site, completely removing our ability to rank. Every year we see more instances of competitors or random bloggers outing companies for their shady link building practices, and someone at Google looks into it and penalizes the site.

It is simply not worth the risk of engaging in risky, spammy, or forbidden link acquisition tactics, unless your strategy is to try to rank a site for a few months or weeks and then throw it away.

The following tactics are all against the rules for one reason or another:

  • Do not pay/compensate for a link: you cannot compensate a blogger or site owner or article author in any way for a link (you can pay for nofollow links that don’t help you rank, of course). This includes any form of compensation: you cannot offer money for links (JC Penny was famously penalized for this). You cannot give away a free product for a link in a “review.” You cannot offer a discount in exchange for a link (Overstock.com was penalized for this). You cannot offer to tweet their post in exchange for a link (RapGenius.com was penalized for this). You literally cannot compensate a site owner or author in any way for a link, because the whole point of links is that they’re supposed to be legitimate signals that people find your site valuable, without bribery involved.
  • Avoid Directory Links: there are hundreds of thousands of link directories where you can place a link to your site for free, or for a nominal charge. There are services that will get you listed in hundreds or thousands of directories for surprisingly little. These are bad links that could hurt you. That said, there are some legitimate industry-specific directories where getting a link is fine. These are easy to identify: they are directories that people actually use and the kind of place that you’d be willing to pay for a listing even if the link didn’t help your SEO. In general, directories are not a valid part of your link acquisition strategy.
  • Avoid Social Bookmarking: At some point some SEOs discovered that various social sites (often forums) did not nofollow links within profiles. Next thing you know there are services offering hundreds of social bookmark links for one low price. While a great automated method, these links never helped much and can hurt you now. Feel free to put a link to your homepage in your own profile on sites you actually use regularly, but social bookmarking is not a valid link acquisition strategy. This includes things like Squidoo lenses or Tumblr linking.
  • Don’t Do Article Marketing Sites: There are sites where you can submit an article — on any topic at all — and they will host it and link back to you. This was a big automated link acquisition tactic in the early 2000s. It rarely worked back then and it will hurt you now.
  • Don’t Use Press Releases for Links: According to Google all links in press releases should be nofollow. This wasn’t entirely practical since tons of large businesses use press releases for legitimate purposes, so Google followed up by just not counting any links from press release sites and removed the ability of most press release sites to rank as well. There are thousands of sites that host press releases, and most of them exist for the same reasons as the article marketing sites – automated acquisition of hundreds and thousands of links. Press releases are not a valid part of a legitimate link acquisition strategy.
  • Don’t Guest Blog (many exceptions): Guest blogging was a big strategy in the early 2010s that Google finally shut down. The idea was you went to a blogger and offered to write a post on their site about a relevant topic. You got a link back either in the byline, or by embedding that link into the article. This was considered a legitimate tactic at first, but then lazy SEOs began automating the process (notice a trend here?): they’d outsource the writing, then outsource even the placement. Blogger email was filled with millions of spam emails in broken English asking to guest post. Google finally shut it down by declaring guest posting to be a spammy tactic subject to penalty. Don’t get me wrong: if someone comes to you and asks you to make a post on their blog, by all means do so. If Huffington Post or Ars Technica or the New York Times is going to post your article, that’s almost definitely fine. There are very legitimate guest posting opportunities: they’re the ones at sites everyone has heard of and that are hard to get into. But you should have at most a small fraction of your links from guest blogging.
  • Widgets – Use Caution: in the early 2000s widgets were a killer link building tactic. You built a neat little widget that someone could install on their own blog — perhaps an interactive calendar or a quiz to see which Star Wars character you were. When the user put the code on their site, it included a credit link for the widget. Eventually that tactic became hugely manipulative with anchor text links pointing to sites entirely unrelated to the widget, or embedding a dozen hidden anchor text links, as Houzz famously did before being penalized (for that and other shady linkbuilding moves). Google started cracking down on widget links, first removing link value, and even penalizing. That said, Google has made it clear that you can produce a widget that has a credit link, provided that link goes to a legitimate page (it should go to the page about the widget where a user can get the widget code) and does not use keyword-rich anchor text. The anchor text should be the name of your site. So this tactic is valid in small doses if done very carefully.
  • Avoid Anything Automated: You’ll notice that the one common thread running through most of these practices that can now get you penalized is automation. (You could well argue that another common thread is that the site did not earn the links). Any time you are offered an automated way to get a lot of links for a relatively cheap price, you can be certain it’s either against the rules and could get you penalized, or it will become against the rules in the near future.

Okay, so that is the definitely bad list. You should not do these things. They are risky and they are against the rules.

Off-Site Authority Intro

Off-site authority building can be summed up simply: getting links from other sites that point to your site. As many links as you can get from as high quality sites as you can get.

This is without question the most difficult part of SEO, where the real SEO work happens. Authority is by far the largest ranking factor (though user metrics are quickly rising to a similar level), and the off-site authority building that you do is what will determine whether your site ranks or not.

Unsurprisingly, it’s also going to eat up more words on this site than any other section.

Links have been at the heart of Google’s ranking algorithm from the day it launched, and every single year it has grown harder to rank for the simple reason that every year there are more sites competing for rankings, and the established sites have had an extra year to gain more links — so new sites need increasingly more (or better) links to have a shot at competing.

Because authority is so incredibly important to ranking, many SEOs have looked for and found shortcuts and automations to get links. Every year Google gets more and more aggressive about shutting down these shady and black-hat tactics. The good news is the legitimate ways sites have always used to earn links continue to work year after year. The bad news is those ways are work — that’s why so many SEOs spend so much time looking for shortcuts.

Before we start diving into the actual tactics of attracting links to your site, it’s worth taking some time to address what not to do — because you will be confronted with many people offering to sell you shortcuts that could get you penalized. We need to understand what Google expects your backlink profile to look to help identify what is a legitimate link-building method and what is against the rules.

Let’s start with what you should unequivocally not be doing.

Reuse URLs to Preserve Authority

As a final note on the topic of on-site authority, whenever possible you want to re-use existing URLs that already have links to them, rather than building new versions.

For example, if you have an article on the best vacation spots of 2013 that got some links and attention — reuse that page when you do the 2014 article! Rather than making a whole new page and starting over from scratch, just replace the contents with the 2014 content. Then your new article is already starting out with a bunch of links pointing to it and a history of good user metrics, making it more likely to rank.

If you really want to preserve the old content, make a new article for the old stuff and backdate it!

Obviously this technique only works if the old content is no longer attracting visits and links. This is commonly used in the ecommerce industry for Black Friday sales: sites like Amazon.com and Target.com don’t make a brand new URL every year — they use the exact same Black Friday URL year after year so that it can continue to accumulate more and more and more links (which makes it increasingly difficult for anyone just entering the game to compete for rankings).

You should think ahead when using this technique and make sure that your URL does not include date info. Amazon surely doesn’t want its Black Friday page to live at amazon.com/black-friday-2008, for example.