Like an animal in the wild, search engine marketing practices must adapt or they will face certain extinction. Link building is a perfect example and thankfully it doesn’t need to succumb to the same fate as the Saber-toothed tiger or dodo.
Companies that have not updated their linking strategies — or that have hired agencies that have not updated their linking strategies — are likely finding themselves in hot water with Google. But don’t let that discourage you. In this guide, we are going to cover the importance of links, how to gain them in 2014, and ways to stay out of trouble where Google is concerned.
Why Links Still Matter
In a Google Webmaster’s video from February 2014, Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google, said that the quality of Google search results without backlinks would be much worse: “It turns out backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really, really big win in terms of quality for search results.”
Google’s Steps to a Google-friendly site talks about the things you can do to ensure that your website is in step with Google search. “Links help our crawlers find your site and can give your site greater visibility in our search results,” said Cutts. “When returning results for a search, Google uses sophisticated text-matching techniques to display pages that are both important and relevant to each search. Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. Votes cast by pages that are themselves ‘important’ weigh more heavily and help to make other pages ‘important.’ ”
This should tell you that Google does not have plans to remove backlinks entirely from its algorithm anytime in the near future, which means you should not plan to remove link building from your search engine marketing strategy either.
Links are also important for more than just search engine optimization purposes. Visit your web analytics software and take a look at the referral traffic to your website. Chances are, there are a lot of websites sending you traffic besides search engines. Those visitors coming to your website are a result of links from external sites to yours. Hence, even if backlinks had zero value for search engines, they would still have a lot of value when it comes to connecting people to your website.
Before we dive into the way to build links in 2014, let’s take a moment to look at the history of link building tactics.
A Brief History of Link Building
In 2009, Rand Fishkin of Moz summarized the history of link building in a succinct timetable.
2000 – 2002: Link exchanges, email link requests, direct link buys
2003 – 2004: Link networks, blog commenting, paid text links
2005 – 2007: Linkbait, quizbait, social media links
2008 – 2009: Content licensing, UGC incentivized links, editorial content for links
After this point, we saw the rise of a number of additional link-building strategies, including guest blogging and infographics.
In 2012, Google started cracking down on excessive and blatant gaming of their link algorithm in the form of:
- Brands like JCPenny and Overstock being penalized for bad link-building strategies.
- The rise of Google Penguin, the algorithm update focused on decreasing search engine rankings for websites that violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, including using black-hat techniques for link building. Excessive use of keywords in anchor text was one particular target.
- Manual action link penalty warnings in Google Webmaster Tools.
- Penalties against link networks and guest blogging networks.
It’s easy to see that Google has been waging the war against those who participate (or enable participation) in link schemes, link buying, and other manipulative link building strategies. So if you or your agency hasn’t changed your approach to link building in the last couple of years, it’s long overdue.
On-Site Content: Best Way to Build Links in 2014
Google’s own Webmaster Guidelines states the following when it comes to quality link building: “The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”
This is why content marketing is such a hot topic. Creating valuable content on your website is the top online marketing strategy that is going to help you build links to your website. To do content right, you have to approach it in three phases: research, content development and content promotion.
Research is the first component in a successful onsite content strategy. While you will want to experiment to find out what types of content will attract the most links and social shares, other brands have already done a lot of the legwork for you. All you have to do is look toward other brand publishers in your industry to find the content that attracts the most links.
In the above image produced by CognitiveSEO, you can see a visual representation of a website’s link profile. The larger dots indicate higher authority backlinks. To the left, you can see the number of links pointing to the homepage. To the right, you can see the link clusters pointing to specific pieces of content on the website. By hovering over the larger clusters, you will see the content that has received the most high authority backlinks.
Tools like Open Site Explorer will also show you the top pages on any website based on the number of backlinks and linking root domains. You can export this list and sort it by pages with the top Domain Authority, most backlinks, and most linking root domains. This can also help you discover the top linked content from your competitors.
These are great places to start your research on topic ideas for onsite content with the goal of link attraction. You should also start subscribing to and reading the latest from top publications in your industry, many of which can be found on sites like Alltop. When you subscribe to these publications using tools like Feedly, you’ll be able to easily scan headlines and see what topics are the most popular using the social share rating next to each headline. Trending topics tend to get more shares and thus, more links.
2) Content Development
Once you know the types of topics that do well in your industry, your next step is to combine those topics with content types that are sure to be popular. The following are content types that have been proven to be successful at generating links and social shares. With each type, you will see an example with the number of links and social shares they generated.
Lists such as the Heartbleed Hit List, are the easiest pieces of content to create, and people love them because they know that they will likely find what they are looking for in a quick-to-consume format. An even better approach is to include the number of items in a list. For simplicity, 10 is great , but 100 will definitely get eyes to your content.
Alternatively, naming your list epic, such as the Epic Guide to Online Privacy Tools can get a lot of buzz too.
When you have in-depth knowledge about a topic, be sure to share it as an in-depth guide. Aside from establishing yourself as an expert in your industry, you are likely to gain a lot of shares and links from those who praise your efforts. One example is Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO.
Pillar pages are pages on your website where you list resources about a particular topic. For example, if you have a lot of posts about social media marketing, you could have one pillar page that is called Getting Started with Social Media Marketing. Not only is it a great page to share when someone asks about social media that will help people navigate your content, but it will also earn you some shares and links.
If you can collect data that people in your industry would be interested in, then industry reports are a great way to attract links. You can collect this data using your own tools, or using survey tools such as Survey Monkey. Then, you can publish reports such as the 2013 Social Media Marketing Industry Report.
When creating industry reports, be sure to not only ask specific questions about your industry, but also get demographic information about survey takers so that readers will know where the data was collected.
People love to be recognized. Egobait is a content type where you recognize people’s expertise in a way that makes them want to promote your content simply for being featured. There are different ways to approach egobait.
For starters, you can ask experts in your industry to answer a question. In addition to being egobait, you have the makings of a great list, such as 16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners.
You can create an industry award, such as the Top 10 Social Media Blogs of 2013. To boost engagement potential, you can invite your readers to vote for their top picks and then create a final list of the top 10. To boost link potential, you can include an award badge that people can add to their website, linking back to your list.
You can create an annual list, such as the Top 50 Social Media Power Influencers. Just be sure to explain the metrics that went into your decision.
The reason egobait works so well is pretty simple. People want to brag about the fact that they were invited to participate in something or that they were recognized for a particular achievement. In most cases, so long as the people on your list have blogs, they will inevitably share those recognitions in their latest post or on a page that lists the times they have been recognized.
You might have heard that infographics are on Google’s hit list for spammy content in exchange for links. Regardless, a recent study published on Huffington Post revealed that infographics get the most shares over lists, how-to articles, and other content types.
Plus, you can’t deny the linkability of infographics, such as this one on Page Load Time.
Google doesn’t necessarily hate all infographics; they just hate these things:
- Infographics that are unsourced or use bad data
- Low quality designs (e.g., infographics that are screenshots of a spreadsheet)
- Using infographics to build links to other websites (e.g., embed this infographic and link to this random domain).
All you have to do to be safe is make sure the data you use is sound, the design of your infographic is awesome, and the link you ask people to attribute the infographic to is the URL of the page the infographic is published upon.
3) Content Promotion
Once you have created an amazing piece of content, you might feel like the brunt of the work is over, but that is not the case. Promoting your piece of content may make the difference between attracting a lot of links and wondering where you went wrong.
When it comes to a piece of content that you have created for link attraction, you will want to go beyond just sharing it on your social media networks and through your email marketing list. There are several additional methods that can help ensure that your piece of content reaches the popularity level needed to attract more shares and more links.
- Influencer Outreach. Reach out to other people in your industry who share similar pieces of content to see if they would be interested in sharing yours. If you created egobait, for example, make sure that you reach out to each person that was included to let them know about your piece of content and encourage them to share it with their followers.
- Social Advertising. Help spread the word about your piece of content beyond your own audience through targeted social media advertising with Facebook Promoted Posts, Twitter Promoted Tweets, and LinkedIn Sponsored Updates. Social media audiences in particular are very interested in valuable pieces of content.
- Content Amplification. Content syndication networks such as Outbrain, Zemanta, and Taboola allow you to purchase ad space on popular publications dedicated to content promotion. You’ve likely seen these spaces at the end of articles on Huffington Post, CNN, and similar large publications under the heading of “You May Like” or “From Around the Web.” This can help you reach even larger audiences with your content.
Additional Link Building Strategies
Aside from creating content on your own website for link attraction, the following — when done correctly — are still legitimate ways to build quality backlinks to your website.
Guest blogging, contrary to popular belief, is not off-limits. It just needs to be approached the right way; Google does not have a problem with subject authorities contributing quality content to authoritative publications. But gone are the days where you would find a blog based on a matching keyword, check the blog’s PageRank, and submit an article written for $10 as a guest post.
In order to do guest blogging the right way in 2014 — and simultaneously build great backlinks — you will want to do the following:
- Find the top publications in your industry. They will be the ones that receive a large volume of traffic, social shares for each post, and are known to only publish high quality content.
- Approach the publication not as a guest blogger, but as a regular contributor.
- Submit high quality, unique content on a regular basis.
- Connect your content to your Google+ profile to build your authorship.
- Promote the content you contribute to other publications and maintain engagement in the comments.
As you contribute content regularly to authoritative publications in your industry, your author authority will grow. This will boost your reputation as an industry expert and separate you from the average guest blogger.
Journalists are always in need of credible sources for their stories. Something as simple as providing a quote, report, or interesting finding in your industry can help you earn valuable links on reputable online publications, all the way up to the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and other major media networks.
Researching the backlinks of your competitors can reveal many additional opportunities for building links to your website. Once you identify the highest authority backlinks for your competitors, you can look at what it will take to attain them. It may be something as simple as a personalized outreach request or creation of a great resource to link to.
Broken Link Building
Broken link building is the art of finding amazing backlinks to websites that no longer exist. This can happen because a website changed to a new domain without redirecting properly, or because a competitor has gone out of business. This is why it never hurts to monitor your competitors — the moment they are not around, you can swoop in to offer webmasters an alternative link for their visitors.
Sponsoring events and charities is not only a good way to get your name in front of a large audience, but it is also a way to gain high-quality backlinks. Research events and charities that are well-known in your industry, popular with your customers, and sponsored by your competitors — these will be great for your link profile.
If you have ever moved a page on your website without properly redirecting it, you may have lost valuable links. With proper research and outreach, these lost backlinks can be identified and restored back to your website for both search engine value and traffic generation.
Don’t Dig That Grave Yet…
As you can see, there’s no need to dig a premature grave for long-standing search engine marketing practices like link-building and guest blogging. By bringing their implementation up-to-date you can resurrect these staples and even earn Google’s respect. Don’t overlook useful resources like Google Webmaster Guidelines, particularly the sections on link schemes and hidden links. And don’t fall for shortcuts like buying bulk link building. Any package or service that says they can build you thousands of links is likely using low-quality techniques that will eventually cause Google to penalize your website. With a focus on building links that are relevant to your business, you’ll drive quality visitors to your website.