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Links are the currency of the web. The websites that have plenty of them are deemed “authoritative” and are rewarded with high rankings in Google. While websites that don’t have any are bound to obscurity.
If you’re just starting out in SEO, figuring out link building can be quite a challenge.
Some SEOs will tell you to create great content and wait for links to come naturally, others will insist that strategic link prospecting and targeted email outreach is where it’s at, and someone else will give you a cryptic smile and drop just one word: PBNs.
So who should you listen to?
As with many things in SEO, the correct answer is: “it depends.” There’s no single right approach to link building and your choice of tactics will largely depend on your industry, your website, your resources, and your goals.
Did I just make things even more confusing than they already were?
Worry not. We created this link building guide with absolute beginners in mind and made sure that it’s full of actionable advice that you can start implementing right away.
Since this is a beginner’s guide, it is only fair to start from the very basics.
What is link building?
Link building is the process of getting other websites to link to pages on your website to help them rank higher in Google search results.
In general, you can boil most “white hat” link building strategies down to two simple steps:
Create something notable (and therefore worthy of a link);
Show it to people who own websites (and thus can link to it).
Why is link building important?
According to Google’s Andrey Lipattsev, links are one of the three major ranking factors in Google. So if you want your website’s pages to rank high in search, you will almost certainly need links.
Google (and other search engines) look at links from other sites as “votes.” These votes help them identify which page on a given topic (out of thousands of similar ones) deserves to be ranking at the very top of the search results.
As a general rule, pages with more backlinks tend to rank higher in search results. This has been studied at scale by many SEO companies and the correlation between the number of websites linking to a page and it’s ranking position in Google has always turned out positive.
So links are important, that’s a given.
But why is it so important to be building them?
I mean, websites tend to naturally link to each other, right? You’re just a few paragraphs into this guide and you’ve already seen me linking to two different pages.
Well, in an ideal world, the most valuable page on any topic would always get the most links and rank #1 in Google. While lower-quality pages won’t get as many links and will rank lower.
But we’re not living in this ideal world. And there are two main reasons why the pages with the most links might not necessarily be the best ones:
1. The Vicious Cycle of SEO
Guess how I chose the two pages that I’ve linked to above. Do you think I studied thousands of similar pages on each topic to pick the best ones? Of course not! I did a quick Google search for the thing that I wanted to reference, opened a couple of the top-ranking pages to verify that they say what I need them to say, and linked to the one that seemed like the best fit.
And that’s how the two top-ranking pages got themselves a new link, which further secured their high rankings in Google.
We call it “The Vicious Cycle of SEO.” And we actually did a research study to prove that it’s a real thing.
The moment it’s published, your awesome page is immediately at a massive disadvantage against those ranking at the top of Google for the same topic. And if you want to break into this vicious cycle, you have to be proactive about acquiring backlinks to it.
2. Your competitors are likely building links
Let’s say your page has picked up lots of links naturally (no link building involved) and now ranks #1 in Google for it’s topic.
Well, guess what? Someone else’s page used to rank #1 before you came along. And its owner is likely looking to regain that top spot by building some quality links to their page.
It’s the same story with the owner of the page in position #3, which used to be in position #2. They’re not happy about it and they are likely to start building links to fix that.
And while your page might actually be ten times better than their pages (which is why it got so many natural links in the first place), your competitors can still outrank you if they are skilled enough at building links.
You can either do nothing and lament that the world is unfair or stand up and fight back.
Links aren’t the answer to everything
From this introductory chapter it may seem that in order to rank #1 in Google, all you need to do is build more backlinks than the pages that are currently ranking there.
And while that is true to a certain extent, in reality things are a little more nuanced than that.
Other than all links not being equal (we’ll talk more about it in Chapter 3), search engines factor in many other variables when ranking pages. And the mix of these variables may actually depend on the type of search query that you want to rank for.
So if you build lots of links to your page and it still ranks poorly, don’t blame this guide for misleading you. Look into other ranking factors that might prevent you from ranking well.
How to build links
There are many tactics and strategies that will help you get links from other websites to your pages. In this chapter, you will learn what these tactics and strategies are, the logic behind them, and how risky it might be to use them.
Conceptually, most link building tactics and strategies fall into one of the following five buckets: Add, Ask, Buy, Earn and Preserve.
1. Adding links
If you can go to a website that doesn’t belong to you and manually place your link there, that’s called “adding” a link. The most common tactics that fit into this category are:
Business directory submissions;
Social profile creation;
Posting to forums, communities & Q&A sites;
Creating job search listings;
Building links via those tactics is very easy to do. And for that exact reason, those links tend to have very low value in the eyes of Google (and in some cases can even be flagged as SPAM).
Other than that, these kinds of links barely give you any competitive advantage. If you can go to a website and manually place your link there, nothing stops your competitors from doing the same.
However, you shouldn’t ignore this group of link building tactics entirely. Each of them can actually be quite beneficial for your online business for reasons other than acquiring links.
Let me elaborate with a few examples:
Submitting your website to business directories
You should resist the urge to add your website to every single business directory there is just to get yourself another link. Instead, focus on those that are well known, have traffic and therefore might bring actual visitors to your website.
For example, if you’re a small business owner and you’ve learned about a local business directory where fellow entrepreneurs get their leads, you should absolutely list your business there. And that one link would probably bring you a lot more ‘SEO value’ than submitting your site to a list of generic business directories that you found at a random SEO forum.
Creating social profiles for your business
It’s good practice to claim your brand name on all major social media sites (Twitter, YouTube, SlideShare, Instagram & the like) as soon as possible. Otherwise, squatters might snatch them once your brand gets on their radar.
It’s for this very reason that our team pictures on Instagram as “ahrefscom,” instead of “ahrefs.” Someone else snatched that username and we didn’t manage to claim it back—yet.
We never bothered to promote our Instagram profile, and yet it somehow got links from over 70 websites. This makes it a rather “strong” page to have a link from (more on the value of links in Chapter 3):
Leaving a meaningful comment on someone’s article is a great way to get on their radar and kickstart a relationship with them (which might lead to all sorts of good things). But posting comments with the sole purpose of shoehorning a link to your website there will only make blog owners hate you.
And besides, links from blog comments are usually nofollowed (i.e., might not count as “votes”). So if you’re thinking of leaving someone a comment just to add your link there—don’t.
Hopefully these three examples will give you a good idea of how to “add” your links to other websites without spamming.
While looking for more ways to “add” links to other websites, you might come across tactics that mention “web 2.0s” and “bookmarking sites.” Those things used to work some 15 years ago, but you shouldn’t waste your time on them today.
2. Asking for links
As the name suggests, this is when you reach out to the owner of the website you want a link from and give them a compelling reason to link to you.
That “compelling reason” is absolutely essential for this group of link building tactics. The people you reach out to don’t care about you and your website (unless you’re some sort of celebrity) and thus they have zero incentive to help you out.
So before you ask them to link to you, ask yourself: “What’s in it for THEM?”
Here are some of the link building tactics and strategies that fall into this category, along with a briefly defined “compelling reason” that they’re based off:
All these strategies seem quite exciting, right? But as soon as you send your first email request you’re likely to face the harsh reality—your “compelling reason” isn’t compelling enough:
Your guest post isn’t good enough;
Your resource isn’t unique enough;
Your “Skyscraper” isn’t “high” enough;
You see, for these link building tactics to be effective, you need to create a truly exceptional page that people would naturally want to link to. Or have a lot of authority and credibility in your space, which might help to compensate for your page’s lack of notoriety.
Given how hard it is to persuade random people to link to you, many SEOs started looking for ways to sweeten the deal:
Offer to share their content on Twitter & Facebook;
Offer to promote their content in an email newsletter;
Offer free access to a premium product or service;
Offer a link in exchange;
But offering these kinds of “extra benefits” gets us into the grey area of what is considered a “link scheme” according to Google’s guidelines:
And there you have it. The legitimate ways of asking for links have a rather low success rate, but as soon as you try to “sweeten the deal,” you’re entering Google’s minefield.
At this point, it may seem that I’m dissuading you from using tactics and strategies listed in this group. I’m not. I’m just trying to set the right expectation, so that you won’t give up after sending your 10th outreach email and getting no response. It really takes a lot of effort to get links with these tactics while not breaking Google’s guidelines.
Let me share one cool “hack” that I learned from Adam Enfroy while doing my research for this guide. Before reaching out to connect with Pat Flynn, Adam linked to his website from at least ten guest articles that he wrote for popular blogs (which he casually mentioned in his outreach email).
“Pay it forward” is a good way to describe what he did here. Adam didn’t reach out asking: “Would you interview me on SPI podcast if I build ten quality links for you?” He just went ahead and built ten high-quality links for Pat regardless of the outcome.
Long story short, Adam landed himself an interview at SPI podcast. And I’m sure “paying it forward” played some role in that.
3. Buying links
Let’s get this straight from the get go: we don’t recommend that you buy links!
At best, you’re likely to waste lots of money on bad links that will have zero impact on your rankings; at worst, you’ll get your website penalized.
However, we would be putting you at a disadvantage if we didn’t disclose the fact that many people in the SEO industry “buy” links in all sorts of ways and manage to get away with it.
That said, we won’t teach you how to buy links safely, but rather educate you on some of the riskiest ways to do it.
Private Blog Networks
Also known as PBNs, these are groups of websites that are created and maintained with one purpose: to be a source of links.
Links from PBNs still work well in some niches. But in the past few years we’ve seen quite a few of the vocal PBN advocates gradually move away from using them. It got so risky that it’s no longer worth it.
So if someone is offering you to buy links from a PBN (or build a private PBN for you), you should say “no.”
There are hundreds of gigs on Fiverr offering you “natural, editorial, contextual, high-authority, white hat” links. They give you all sorts of guarantees that these links are legit and will propel your website to the top of Google in no time.
Avoid them. Even if your friend tried them and it worked. The best link building agencies don’t sell their services on Fiverr.
Link seller SPAM
If you own a website and have listed your contact details there, sooner or later you’re going to start receiving emails with offers to buy links. Like this one:
If you care about the well-being of your website even the slightest bit, don’t buy links from these people. Just mark those emails as “SPAM” and move on.
You might also get outreach emails from legit link building agencies which build links using safe white hat strategies only. But I’m sure you’ll be able to tell a legit SEO agency from a spammy link seller.
All in all, link buying is fairly common among SEOs, although its scale largely depends on the industry that you’re in. But even if your competitors are paying for links, you don’t necessarily have to follow suit. You don’t need to break Google’s guidelines to rank well and get search traffic.
4. Earning links
You “earn” links when other people link to the pages on your website without you having to ask them to do so. This obviously doesn’t happen unless you have something truly outstanding that other website owners would genuinely want to mention on their websites.
But people can’t link to things that they don’t know exist. So no matter how awesome your page is, you’ll need to invest in promoting it. And the more people see your page, the higher the chance that some of them will end up linking to it.
Here are a few tactics and strategies that fall into this category:
Earning links is arguably the easiest and the most effective way to get them.
I’d much prefer to invest my time and money into creating valuable pages that will generate word of mouth and pick up links naturally, rather than working on a sequence of daunting link prospecting and email outreach workflows hoping to build links to a mediocre page.
Take this very blog as an example. Three out of five of our most linked articles (excluding the homepage) are data research studies (i.e., linkbait):
You might argue that it’s easy for Ahrefs to advocate earning links naturally with linkbait, given that we have:
Lots of proprietary data, which we can use for research studies;
A team of skilled professionals, who can help us create valuable resources;
A trusted brand, that automatically gives credibility to all our work;
A fairly large audience to promote our content to (and kickstart word of mouth).
While these things do help us tremendously, none of them are a prerequisite for earning links. Anyone can create noteworthy content and earn links if they have passion for the topic and a bit of determination.
Back in 2015, I spent dozens of hours surveying 500 bloggers about the “ROI of guest blogging.” I then published this “research” on my personal blog, and it generated links from over a hundred websites. That was twice as many links as my most-linked article at the time.