Links have long been one of the primary factors used by Google and other major search engines to rank websites and pages. Which means, if you want to rank in search, you’re going to have to build links.
The problem: there’s a lot of information out there about link building. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. Some of it just plain bad.
So to help you build links the right way, we’ve put together this complete, noob friendly, guide to link building.
We’ll be covering
- link building theory
- essential skills and tactics
- the best link building tools
- linking to some of the best link building tutorials and case studies on the web
We’ll also be revealing the results of our recent industry wide link building survey.
But let’s start with the SEnuke TNG Review.
What Is Link Building?
Link building is the process of acquiring new inbound links (backlinks) to a website from external sites.
The goal of most link building campaigns will be to increase future search traffic from Google, although links from popular sites (such as newspapers) can also be an excellent source of referral traffic.
Our own research has found that link popularity (the number of inbound links to a site/page) continues to have a high correlation with Google rankings.
Indeed, the chart below (taken from our study of over 2 million keywords) shows that link signals have a much higher correlation score than individual on-page factors (meta tags, keyword usage etc).
Chapter 1: What kind of links move the needle?
In simple terms, each link to a website is considered as a vote. The more votes a site accumulates, the more likely it will be to show up for a particular search query.
However it is not a ‘one member, one vote’ system.
There are a number of factors which determine the weight Google will assign to a particular link and how likely it will be to influence future rankings. These include:
1.1 Authority Of The Linking Page/Site
As a site accumulates links its own authority increases. It is then able to pass on more authority (votes) when it links out.
So a link from a high authority site (such as the BBC) will generally be more powerful than a link from a low authority site (for example a new site with no inbound links of its own).
Ahrefs has 2 metrics which can help you determine the authority of a linking page or site:
- Domain Rating (DR)— refers to the overall strength (authority) of a site and is measured from 0–100 — with 0 being no authority (for example a new site with no inbound links) and 100 being the highest.
- URLRating (UR) — refers to the strength (authority) of an individual page and is measured from 0–100.
In the example below, we can see that Stock Image PLR Firesale 2.0 Review has a DR score of 67 and a URscore of 32.
“Domain Rating” and “URL Rating” are featured at the top of the “Overview” report in Ahrefs Site Explorer tool
We can also see that Ahrefs has discovered 66 domains linking to this page. These are the links which have contributed directly to the UR score.
Ahrefs is well known for its huge index of backlinks, so you can rely on our metrics when assessing the authority of a website or page.
Recommended Reading: Ahrefs’ SEO Metrics Explained (Finally).
1.2 NoFollow Links
Certain links (for example links from blog comments) may have the rel=”nofollow” attribute applied.
<a href="example.com" rel="nofollow">This is a nofollow link</a>
To comply with Google’s guidelines, any paid links should also have the rel=”nofollow” attribute.
The nofollow attribute instructs search engines not to follow the link and in theory links with this attribute should not contribute to rankings.
Opinion varies however on whether this is actually the case.
For example, links from wikipedia are nofollow and many leading SEOs consider wikipedia links to be beneficial for rankings due to the site’s high trust (see this Facebook Ads Domination Review for more).
We asked link building expert Eric Ward for his opinion on whether nofollow links contribute to rankings:
I believe that any search engine with the goal of returning accurate results must maintain ultimate control over what it does and does not give credit to, and selectively choose the signals it values. And this includes rel=nofollow. I think it is perfectly reasonable to assume that any search engine can give credit to any link it wants to give credit to, if it feels there are enough signals to indicate it’s a credible link. And that means even if the link is nofollowed.
In my entire career I have never made a decision about whether or not I would pursue a link based upon whether or not that link would be followed or nofollowed.
I pursue links if I feel they will help my client reach a certain goal or objective.
While ‘dofollow’ links are preferred, a high quality nofollow link may contribute to rankings and will certainly be a good link to acquire. Additionally, a mixture of ‘nofollow’ and ‘dofollow’ links will result in a more natural backlink profile.
There is no ‘dofollow’ attribute, but this is the term most SEOs use to refer to links without the nofollow attribute applied.
1.3 Link Placement
It may be the case that the search engines attribute more weight to certain types of links.
For example, a text link from within content may pass more authority than a link from a sidebar or footer. This is because an in-content link is more likely to be:
- Actually clicked
- Surrounded by relevant text (see link relevancy)
Google’s ‘Reasonable Surfer’ patent, filed in 2004 and approved in 2010, suggests that Google will attempt to determine how likely a link is to be ‘clicked’ and consider this when deciding how much weight a link will pass.
That being said, there is anecdotal evidence that Google continue to give weight to links from footers, sidebars etc when the linking site is considered an authority. This recent study by Viperchill demonstrated how major brands are using footer links to influence (and dominate) search results.
1.4 The Anchor Text
The search engines have long used anchor text — that is the words used to link — as a ranking factor.
For example a web page with a target keyword of “fishing rods” is likely to benefit from a percentage of its inbound links containing that phrase; in either partial or exact match form:
- Exact match: fishing rods
- Partial match: this page about fishing rods
Ahrefs recently conducted a study across 16,000 keywords which confirmed there remains a strong correlation between keyword anchors and rankings:
We can see from the chart above that the pages at position 1 had an average of:
- 13% exact match links
- 24% partial match links
While it is clear from the data that keyword use in anchor text has a positive impact on rankings, it should also be pointed out that overuse of keyword rich anchors can have the opposite effect.
Too many anchor text links can be a sign of manipulation and may incur link penalties, such as Google Penguin.
Here is what Eric Ward had to say about anchor text:
I’m not saying that anchor text as a signal is no longer useful. What I believe is Google can make a distinction between what it considers to be a normal distribution of anchor text vs. manipulated distribution of anchor text. This doesn’t mean I try to stay within some sort of anchor text percentage or range. I have said many times that over the two decades I have been building links I’ve never once asked for specific anchor text. Not once.
1.5 Link Relevancy
There are a number of factors that may influence the ‘relevancy’ of a link and the weight that Google subsequently assigns to it.
- The anchor text (see above)
- Other outbound links on the page
It is also likely (and logical) that the text immediately surrounding a link is an important ranking signal.
Indeed, Google holds a patent (filed in 2004) called “Ranking based on reference contexts”, which could be construed as a blueprint for inferring context from surrounding text.
Ahrefs indexes both the surrounding text and anchor text for all backlinks discovered by our crawler.
For every backlink in Ahrefs index we also store a piece of the text surrounding its anchor
1.6 Unnatural Links
Links which Google flags as unnatural (either algorithmically or through manual review) are likely to be discounted and not contribute towards rankings. Multiple unnatural links may also lead to a penalty and a decrease in rankings/traffic.
There is a little blurring of the lines in what constitutes an unnatural link, with some arguing that any link that is ‘built’ (even through outreach) is intended to manipulate search results and is therefore unnatural.
This is however an overly-literal interpretation of Google’s guidelines and a line often repeated by ‘black hat’ SEOs to incorrectly justify their approach to link building.
I would say that any link in which there has been an editorial choice (the site has chosen to link to you) is white hat and Google safe. This applies whether the linking site found your content organically (by themselves), or your pointed them to it (through outreach/promotion).
Links built manually for traffic reasons (e.g. guest blogging, content repurposing, content syndication) should also be safe when used as part of a wider link strategy and not abused.
Recommended Reading: Bad Links: How To Identify Toxic Backlinks & Remove Google Penalties.
Chapter 2: Essential Link Building Skills
Effective link building in the post Penguin age combines a number of skills and the modern link builder has to be a truly diverse marketer with:
- A logical, analytical thought process (competitor analysis and strategy)
- A creative mind (link bait and content ideas)
- Excellent communication skills (networking and outreach)
It could even be said that effective link building includes an element of psychology (working out how to get someone to link to you).
Before we move on to individual link building strategies, let’s take a closer look at 2 of the most important skills in link building; competitor research and outreach.
2.1 Competitor Research
A good starting point for most link building campaigns is to analyse the backlink profiles of competing sites.
Ahrefs crawls the web in the same way as Google and collects backlink data (linking sites and pages) for each site we discover.
This data can be accessed in our “referring domains” report (below), which shows all domains linking to an individual site or web page.
Site Explorer > Enter domain or URL > Explore > Backlink profile > Referring domains
The “Referring domains” report in Ahrefs will show you all the domains that are linking to your target website or URL
Analysing the backlink profiles of several competitors will:
- Give an insight into their link building strategies
- Provide opportunities to replicate their links
The trick is to work out how (or why) your competitor received a particular link and determine whether that’s something you can replicate. You’ll probably want to start with some ‘quick wins’.
Here are some examples of easier links to replicate:
- User generated links— Social profiles, video sites, blog comments etc.
- Guest post links — You can simply reach out to the linking site and ask if you can contribute your own guest post.
- A link from a resource page — Reach out and ask if the site will add your resource.
Look out for ‘hubs’ — that is sites linking to more than one competitor. These can be very strong link prospects.
Harder to replicate will be genuine editorial links to popular content pieces on your competitor’s site.
You can use the ‘Best By Links’ report in Ahrefs Site Explorer to quickly find the most linked to content on a domain.
Site Explorer > Enter domain > Explore > Pages > Best by links
The “Best by links” report in Ahrefs will show you which pages on a target website have the most backlinks
To replicate these links you will probably have to ‘one up’ your competitor’s content and then conduct an outreach/promotion campaign. This might seem a lot of work, but (as a very loose rule of thumb) the harder a link is to acquire, the more likely it will be to positively influence your rankings.
Outreach is arguably the most important skill in a link builder’s toolset, but is also one of the hardest to master.
With the exception of (very) rare cases — where content naturally picks up viral traction and spreads by itself — to acquire links you will have to get your content (or site) in front of the right eyeballs at the right time.
And despite the rise of social media, the most effective medium for outreach continues to be email.
While outreach is a topic deserving of its own article, here is one tip that can dramatically improve your success rate:
How Timing Can Increase Your Success With Outreach
Reacting promptly to link opportunities — in close to real time — is a great way to increase your outreach ‘hit rate’.
Which would you be more likely to add a link to:
- a) An old article, published last year that you have probably forgotten about and moved on from;
- b) An article you have published in the past month and are still actively promoting?