Link building has long been recognised as essential to ranking with Gary Illyes stating that “ranking without links is really, really hard”. This recognition by Google that links are foundational to ranking is further recognised by a more recent post about the three pillars of ranking being content, links and rankbrain. While links are important, it isn’t just the link itself but many other factors around the link which are important.
Link building is always risky. No matter how you look at it, if there is an attempt to build links to manipulate rankings then Google is going to take a dim view of that. I’m going to give you some tips that, if followed, should help you build links that won’t get you penalised by Google. Of course the tips and tricks in my talk will be more advanced but these are the best place to start as the session is an advanced one.
Links have been bought and sold since the first realisation that they were important. Where we used to go to link brokers, spend €100 and rank number 1 for our target terms. Now you can often only get a single link of dubious quality for €100, making it much more difficult to get those searched-for rankings. With a limited budget you need to ensure you are getting the right links in to the right places to meet your needs.
There are a few things to consider in order to ensure you build safe and valuable links, but first some cautionary tales. Back then Penguin was first launched, a site I was working on got penalised. There had been a build-up of questionable links over time and we finally tipped the scales with an accidental placement of exact match anchor text links on low quality sites. While this was not the only set of links which led to the penalty, it was what tipped the balance of the scales into a penalty. This then led to a massive clean-up operation and getting the penalty lifted after a few weeks. This is not a situation you ever want to find yourself in. As the clean-up is a long and expensive process.
With better understanding of the dangers of exact match anchor text is it still possible to build cheap links and rank well? More recently when testing theoretically bad quality links, I deliberately (finally) pushed a site over the edge using hacked Drupal site links sold as links on quality sites (I knew what I was buying as it was for testing so I was deliberately buying bad quality cheap links). I had been testing buying low quality links for a while but finally pushed the site down in rankings.
It didn’t cause a full manual penalty and there are no messages in Google Search Console so to the untrained eyes it looks fine. The site is still ranking, but when examined over time the rankings are lower and I believe this correlates to a possible suppression penalty. Links may be necessary to rank well, but it is good links which are needed, not bad.
Many companies purport to sell links or packages to help with ranking. From Fiverr to bloggers, there are plenty of sites willing to take your money in exchange for a link. The problem is assessing the value of those links and whether they will achieve your business objectives. There is often a lack of transparency from link sellers on Fiverr or other services so you won’t know where your links will appear until after they are placed – sometimes you won’t know at all.
Normally, increased rankings are not the ultimate end result of link building activity. Generally increased rankings leads to increased relevant traffic which leads to increased sales with sales being the ultimate goal.
There are a few cases where rankings and not traffic is actually the desired outcome, but this is rare. Given that ultimately sales/leads are generally the desired final outcome, this should help shape our link building and enables us to direct our strategy better. We need to ensure the strategy is focused around the right links, the right pages and the right targets. Understanding how you move people through the site towards a sale is an important first step so ensure your site is mapped to a sales journey and you understand what keywords relate to various parts of the sales or lead generation cycle.
First tip for building strong valuable links is to ensure you’ve audited your existing links with Kerboo or a similar link audit tool. If you start building links without proper visibility of where you are right now, you could tip things into a penalty. Not all links marked as suspect need to be removed or disavowed but if you have a significantly negative link profile you will need to address it first. Make sure you try and remove all bad links first before relying on a disavow file just in case. There are services you can purchase to do this for you but if you are not suffering from a manual penalty you have time to change things. By assessing where you are before starting your link acquisition strategy you’ll know if there’s anything to clean up before taking risks.
Second tip is to check the competition but be careful to not just copy them exactly. Just because the competition is winning the race to the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) does not mean all their links are safe. Use tools like Majestic ‘s Clique Hunter to compare your links to those of your competition quickly and easily. This will give you a good overview of the links and their potential value to your business. Some of the links a competitor has will be as a result of personal relationships and so will not be possible to get but working to not only match but better your competitor’s link profile can helps long as those links are traffic driving links.
Third tip is to choose link targets to outreach to that are relevant and outside ones the competition has. Use tools like Buzzsumo to identify people writing about your niche. Look outside your most common keywords and think about your whole vertical. What might people be researching when they could be open to seeing your product or service? How might you pitch your product or service in a different way? Working with influencers can help you also see your offering in a new way.
Thinking outside the box can be difficult when you are constantly working with the product or service and are very familiar with it so ask friends or family what they think, run an online survey, listen in crowds or even have an opinion party where you gather friends at your home and host an evening to gather casual opinions. There are many way to get outside your box besides hiring an outside agency although this can often be the best, fastest and easiest way.
The fourth tip is to analyse link target stats using a tool like URL Profiler to check the vital stats. I used to love to use this with SEMRush to check all the stats and make sure that your targets have value. Look at how many keywords they are ranking for and what those keywords are. Check the pages which are ranking and see if they are a match or too broad. For bloggers you need to look for a topic match and god organic traffic as well as a strong brand. While newer bloggers will be cheaper and more keen to sell space, look for more mature blogs with good rankings and stats. It is important to target these publication for the value they will bring to your business, not just for links.
The final tip I will leave you with which will take you in to my talk is that your choice of link target should be based on what will drive traffic and value for your business, NOT RANKINGS. Ultimately you need to be looking at all of these tools and outputs with an eye to the bottom line of sales or leads. Rankings are not enough of a reason to build a link (and never really were to be honest). Links should be about accessing the audience built by the publication over time and the likelihood of that audience to convert into clients. Building links for rankings is a short-term, short-sighted approach.
My talk at InOrbit 18 will be about more advanced Link building tips with practical examples to take back to your business and use. In my session you’ll get more practical advice as well as chocolate for questions. I will also be the host of one of Hot Seat Sessions on the Deep Dive track. You will be able to ask me for advice about building links, digital strategy or anything at all. I will be available for in-house training, consultancy and of course chocolate.