Google’s search quality team studies everything you do search-wise. And ever since the Penguin update, the best way to get backlinks is no longer to “build” a backlink strategy, but to earn it.
“Link-building is dead. Long live link-earning!”
There was a time when link building was completely separate from content creation and on-page optimization. But those days are over. If your SEO specialist tells you he can get backlinks before working on great content, run!
I don’t want to scare you, but looking for backlinks before getting your marketing in order is going to cost you time, money, and (notably) search rank because of Google’s penalties.
I read hundreds of backlinking guides in researching this piece, and I cannot tell you how much bad advice is out there, even from articles published this year. Dozens of posts recommend doing stuff that will either lead directly to penalties, very low-authority backlinks, or - at best - nothing.
Ok, maybe I do want to scare you a little, but it’s for your own good!
I also found a ton of guides boasting “101 Link-Building Techniques,” which is a joke. Of those 101 tips, you might find 5 or 10 that are actually actionable, safe, and could lead to real results.
This guide provides a clear, actionable, and measurable approach to link-building by:
- Explaining the minimum requirements for getting backlinks with the latest Google updates.
- Warning you against bad practices that take too much time, produce poor results, and lead to penalties.
- Giving lots of real-world examples to help you demonstrate what works and how you can adapt these techniques to your use-case.
- Ranking these techniques so you can focus on those that bring the most value in the least time.
Sound good? And to top that all off, I’ll also be providing clear, step-by-step instructions on how to get backlinks after the Penguin, Panda, and RankBrain updates.
Alright, let’s do this.
I can tell what you’re thinking: earning organic backlinks is easier said than done! Like, what if the subject of your website is simple, straightforward, and not particularly exciting (think law firms, e-commerce site, parts suppliers)? The short answer is:
- Tell a bigger story.
- Use more diverse channels/techniques to tell this story.
The long answer is the rest of this article.
Tell a Bigger Story: “In the beginning, there was content”
A bigger story means that you are not just going to talk about you, your products, or what you do. It means that you’re going to talk about what you believe in. And that’s a totally different thing.
Here are a couple of examples.
Imagine you sell coffee online. You want to get backlinks to your website. Telling the “small story” would be publishing news about your brand, like “Hey, we’ve got these two new products, it’s the best coffee you’ll ever taste, it’s cheaper, there’s free shipping, etc.”
But who really cares about content like that?
I think you know the answer: nobody.
I hate to break it to you, but no one’s going to link to content like that because there’s nothing inspiring about it. It’s not going to enrich anyone else’s content.
Tell the “bigger story.” You can start by talking about what you believe in.
Take this article, for example. It’s called “4 Reasons Why Fair Trade Coffee is a Scam”:
This type of post would fit right into an e-commerce website’s global editorial strategy. The coffee reseller would basically want to say:
“We believe in fighting for transparency and taking action to better the world. This reflects in everything we do. And you know what? Fair trade coffee is not as fair as people think. We’re here to denounce that and to promote a different way of producing and bringing coffee consumers. “
Isn’t that much more powerful?
By the way, this article about fair trade coffee attracted 95 backlinks from 31 domains. How much time would it normally take exchanging links, guest blogging, or even buying links to land 31 referring domains?
The lesson here is: tell a bigger story. And I’m going to show you how.
Telling a bigger story, step 1: Define why you do what you do. Write it down on a piece of paper.
“You should tell a bigger story because nobody cares about what you do, but people care about what you believe in. “
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This is the second time I quote Simon Sinek in this SEO guide. Many experts agree that his Ted Talk should be required viewing for any entrepreneur thinking of creating a company. Personally, I think this rule applies to web marketers and SEO specialists, as well.
The bigger story is a concept similar to the Golden Circle developed by Simon Sinek, which has three concentric rings:
Your small story is one that simply describes what you, your company, or your website do. Your bigger story is one that explains why you do it.
Let’s take a successful (and famous) example of what the SEO community usually calls ‘link-baiting.’
A few years ago, OKCupid (a fledgling online dating site at the time) created and published a very innovative quiz: “Find Yourself 2008.” The goal of this quiz was to identify users’ own political leanings and their political compatibility with potential dates. It was so popular that the website earned more than 450 referring domains to that page:
By creating this quiz, OKCupid wanted to show that their goal was, above all, to help people understand themselves on a deeper level. Their bigger story is that it’s important to know who you are before learning about the people you meet.
This is pretty clear on their homepage:
“Backlinks come when people share the same vision of the world. “
Let’s take another example.
You could easily write Buffer off as just another social application. It’s just about publishing content on social media via their API. Nothing world-changing there, right?
Well, that’s only if you look at what Buffer does. But if you look deeper, you’ll see that much of Buffer’s messaging is about one of their core values: transparency. https://buffer.com/transparency
Why transparency? Because Buffer is a social media app and social networks have brought transparency to forefront. Social media is all about sharing what you do and who you are.
In the screenshot below, you can see that they are expanding their big stories:
One of these stories is “happiness.” We can see that they will soon dedicate an entire part of their blog to that subject. Take a look at this post as a prime example: 10 scientifically proven ways to make yourself happier.
I believe that this article indicates the birth of a new bigger story, even broader than transparency: happiness. This fairly simple post got 155 referring domains, according to Majestic, bringing the Citation Flow (a Majestic SEO metric) of the post up to 43.
According to Moz, the statistics are even more impressive, with a page authority of 75.
Once again, I’d like to draw your attention to this question:
How long do you think they would have normally spent to obtain 155 backlinks using traditional techniques like link exchanges, guest posts, or paid links?
A matter of generosity, a matter of being helpful
Is there a more boring activity in the world than selling washing machine parts? Well, it depends. When you do it with good spirit like e-Spares, selling home appliance parts becomes a mission about helping others and making their lives easier.
To tell a bigger story, e-Spares created an advice center:
This advice center is full of step-by-step guides that explain how to resolve any problem with any home appliance. It’s totally free and might be the best resource in the world for solving problems with appliances. It did take quite a few hours of work upfront to create this resource, but... at the end of the day, this advice center has 211 referring domains.
To find your bigger story, you need to ask to yourself:
If I could do something for my clients for free just because I know things they don’t, what would that be?
Ann Handley is the first person I heard use the term “tell a bigger story.” She explains the concept this way:
Bigger means telling a bigger story that puts your company in the larger context of what people care about. It’s not about you, it’s about what you do for others, so it’s really about putting your product or service in the context of your audience’s lives.
You can use anything in your personal or professional experience to create a bigger story that will inspire your customers/readers/users. For a deep dive into that, I suggest reading this article by Handley: “This is not a post about Delta Airlines.” Actually, it is a post about Delta Airlines. It’s about a flight that was delayed. But from this everyday situation, she quickly expands to a much broader reflections:
What Handley does here is identify the lessons she learned from her experience. She’s asking questions that thousands of people ask themselves every day on a topic that could be discussed for hours in the business/startup community. Something that might only concern one person (a flight delay) expands to touch the heart and brain of every reader. This is exactly what you need to do to get backlinks.
Telling a bigger story, step 2: Find your first link-bait
You should tell a bigger story to get backlinks because you don’t want to be a trader, you want to be an author.
I don’t like the term link-baiting, but I use it here because everyone else uses it. And I want to talk to those folks. Now that you’ve defined why you do what you do, it’s time to find your fist content ideas to bring in those sweet, sweet organic backlinks.
Below are a number of very good examples that work, as well as some that don’t work so well.
Show your expertise
I recommend this one first because it’s usually the easiest for entrepreneurs or web marketers. You or others at your company have specific expertise about what you do. Show this expertise by providing information that nobody else does.
Rentokil is a company that specializes in pest control. Their whole website is full of great info and images that help visitors understand what they do and trust that they do it very well. For example, this page about mice provides precise, accurate, and well-designed information about the tiny critters that can terrorize entire families. That page alone has 15 referring domains.
Make people learn from your content
A major difference between humans and animals is that we spend our entire lives learning and we then transmit that knowledge to others. Your website should do the same! Eartheasy is an e-commerce website that sells various eco-friendly products; they also have an entire subdomain dedicated to learning: http://learn.eartheasy.com
This article about the unexpected benefits of gardening is a prime example of something anyone who gardens (i.e. this website’s persona) might want to read about… and share. That post has 86 referring domain. The subdomain, http://learn.eartheasy.com, has a whopping 928 referring domains.
Surprise your readers and make them dream.
This is a really cool example, but it might seem a little daunting to most of us. You don’t need to go so big, but if you can create visual and interactive content, you’ll get a lot of backlinks from your community.
One way to achieve this is to create an infographic and hire a freelancer to make an animation out of it.
One of the best ways to get backlinks is to publish visual content.
For example, on this page, visitors can see different ways to lace up their shoes and learn about different styles in the process. The design serves as a sort of trigger that compels users to read the story behind that lacing style. Like, did you know the style below originated from paratroopers?
One last detail about this page: did you notice the tiny call to action at the bottom left? It just says “Shop this story.” I like it very much because it really encapsulates the process. First you tell your story, then people buy your story... not your product.
- People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
- People don’t buy your product(s), they buy your story.
- Backlinks don’t come to your website, they come to your story.
Telling a bigger story, step 3: Let the world know about your story
In Moz’s popular book, How to Rank, Cyrus Shepard recommends that “90% of your effort should go into creating great content, and 10% into link building.” That means that you should spend 90% of your time telling your bigger story, and the remaining 10% letting the world know about this story.
Remember that you should at least have completed the first step in this guide before moving onto this one. None of the techniques I describe below will work with “classic” content. You need a powerful, clear, and coherent story on your website to really get results from these backlink acquisition channels.
I’ve decided to include all sorts of techniques here, even the ones I don’t really recommend. This should give you a clearer picture of the risk/reward of each and which methods to avoid.
While most of these techniques will get you backlinks, it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
What you really want to do here to is get people more familiar with your story and content because, then, they’ll want to talk about your story, which will lead them and their community to link back to your website organically.
Some techniques may seem easier than really earning those, but they usually end up being really time consuming because they produce lousy results and take a long time to settle.
To help you decide and prioritize, I’ve indicated each method’s level of time consumption, expected backlink quality, and penalty risks. I’ve also assign a priority level based on the indicators I just mentioned.
Here are the 23 main techniques you might find within the SEO community. I’ve rated each one and provided the best resource on the web to achieve them. Be careful, though. There are some that I really don’t recommend… Check the ratings! ☺
You won’t be penalized for a couple of link exchanges. But, if too many backlinks you get are reciprocal, then Google’s search quality team will likely impose a manual penalty.
Regardless, exchanging links can be very time consuming. Between finding link partners, asking for links, negotiating, and creating content that suits the other website, you’re spending hours that could be spent on more valuable tasks. Oh, and please don’t create pages dedicated to “link partnerships”. This has absolutely no effect and is a very bad sign for Google.
Guest blogging on real websites (not SEO-designed websites)
Google does not look too kindly on guest blogging, suggesting it’s often a “spammy” practice. But that doesn’t mean you should never do it.
Think of guest blogging as a way to get customers instead of a way to get backlinks. Backlinks will come organically if you approach it like that.
Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, racked up 100,000 subscribers in just 9 months almost exclusively by guest-posting… As a result, he also got thousands of backlinks.
The rules for a successful guest blogging strategy are:
- Don’t post on websites that obviously say “Hey, publish a guest post here, it’ll improve your SEO.” It won’t.
- Don’t publish on websites that don’t moderate guest content and have no clear guidelines about creating content for their platform.
- Don’t waste time targeting too many different platforms. You’re better off publishing just a few pieces on carefully selected websites then doing tons of random ones.
I’m sure you just read that entire article, right? 😉 Well, since I’m such a nice guy, I’ll go ahead and summarize it for you:
Step 1: Find websites you should target:
- On BuzzSumo, enter some keywords and select ”guest posts”in the left-hand menu. You’ll see a list of websites that have published guest posts in your field…
- On Google, type in your keywords + “guest post”
Step 2: Find a great idea. When contacting a website, you want to propose an original idea that’s perfectly tailored to their platform and hasn’t been covered on their site before. Here’s how you do that:
- Use Buzzsumo (again) to find the most popular articles on your target-topics of expertise
- Select one topic and come up with a fresh take on it. By offering a new angle, you can make it seem brand new. Here are a few suggestions:
- Change the audience. If it’s for experts, make it for beginners. If it’s for beginners, make it for experts.
- Take a deep dive. Focus on one detail of the post you found and dig deeper into that specific topic. For example, the article you’re reading now is about getting backlinks. However, you might find other articles online that focus on one specific method, “guest blogging.” Then, you can dig even deeper and find content that focuses only on the topic of writing a great email to request a guest blogging spot. From there, you could write an article titled “How to find the best person at a company to pitch a guest post to.”
- Devote an entire piece to providing a unique/different opinion about the topic.
- Write a recap of what others have said about this topic online.
I also strongly recommend reading this post from David Masters where you’ll find excellent tips on pitching guest posts. Here is the e-mail template that Masters suggests using:
I personally prefer to reach out to people through LinkedIn and Twitter because I find it more personal than e-mail. You can still use the same template, though. For Twitter, I would first recommend tweeting the community manager directly and asking if you can direct message regarding a possible partnership. In that tweet, consider linking to one of your strongest posts.
Neil Patel’s advice for guest post is to follow the following rules:
Finally, here’s an example of what not to do. Worst. Guest-post. Pitch. Ever.
Directories won’t bring any authority to your website. I would recommend using only a few directories that are specific to your sector, and only when you first launch your website or if your website has less than 10 referring domains. The goal here would only be to help you rank on your own brand name, get your first backlinks, and maybe get your first search engine-referred visitors. Don’t use old school directories that were obviously setup solely for SEO purposes. You’ll only want to list your website if you think you’ll have a chance to get some traffic from the directory. For example, startups should consider applying to betalist, launchfeed, etc.
Find broken links to your domain
Sometimes, you’ll have earned backlinks but the structure of your website has changed (new CMS, change in page URLs, etc.) As a result, the page that received the backlinks might not exist anymore (404). You should check regularly to see if your website has broken backlinks:
- Use Mazen or Majestic SEO to get a list of backlinks that point to non-existing pages on your site.
- Redirect the URL to your homepage or another relevant page (i.e. relevant to the page where the backlink was found)
Forums and Q&A sites (Quora, Yahoo! Answers)
When posting on forums and message boards, don’t focus on backlinks you might get directly from the discussion you’re joining.
- Those links are usually no-follow
- The pages with those links are so deep in the website’s forum hierarchy that they don’t bring much Link Juice
However, what is interesting about forums is that you can talk to your customers and/or potential partners directly. This allows you to engage in discussions, learn about your audience, and come up with new content ideas. The people who frequent the forum and read the discussions can discover your story and potentially talk about it elsewhere. So forums are useful for telling people about your (bigger) story, so they can then create organic links to your website.
Check out this fairly up-to-date list of 200 DoFollow forums.
Offline relationships and events
Events such as Meetups or conferences are great networking opportunities, and might even get you some high-quality backlinks!
Backlinks from “Top 10” lists, “Top 100” lists, etc.
There are so many Top Whatever lists on the web, so you should easily be able to find those that pertain to your field. For example, if you developed marketing automation software, you would search for “top 20 marketing automation tools” and find results like these:
Talk about other people so they‘ll talk about you
If you interview influencers in your field or review products you like, you could potentially get backlinks from them or even from people who share your interests for them.
Then, use Twitter to let the world know about that content:
- @Mention the person you interviewed to let them know and incite them to retweet
- @Mention some influencers who follow and/or know the person you interviewed
- @Mention People who are already talking about the product your reviewed
This technique doesn’t just work for the short term. You’ll get backlinks any time people use the information they read in your review or interview, provided that the information is unique and relevant.
Tell the people who know the influencer (i.e. their Twitter followers) about the interview directly, using @mentions. For example, if you interviewed Mike, and you know that Mike’s followers Neil and Lauren are also good influencers, tweet at them with @Neil and @Lauren so that they can read, watch, and share the interview. You can also use Linkedin, which is a very powerful way to share this kind of content.
Want a complete guide on using product reviews for backlinks? Venchito Tempon has you covered.: https://www.semrush.com/blog/get-backlinks-using-product-reviews/
Find mentions of your brand that don’t have links yet
Sometimes, your brand might get mentioned online, but with no link back to your website. If that happens to you, you should contact the website’s editorial team and ask them if they can add a link in their content. To do that:
- Search for mentions of your brand using BuzzSumo (and while you’re there, set an alert for mentions to get notified when future mentions occur)
- For each mention, check for a link to your website
- If there’s no link, contact the website to request one
Want a complete guide for this technique? Look no further than Kaila Strong‘s post on Moz: https://moz.com/ugc/guide-to-using-unlinked-brand-mentions-for-link-acquisition-20981
Any expert will tell you that backlinks from .edu domains are among the best backlinks you can ever get.
One way to easily earn these kinds of backlinks is to create a scholarship.
To do that, you’ll want to:
- Create a scholarship page where you describe exactly what will be asked of student applicants, what the winner(s) will get, and what the application process entails - including any conditions or requirements.
- Find university pages that link to scholarships, using the following search string in Google: inurl:.edu “scholarships”.
- Contact each of the universities you found above and let them know about your scholarship.
Looking for more info on this technique? Check out: https://whitespark.ca/blog/getting-down-to-the-nitty-gritty-of-scholarship-link-building/
Haro is a website where you can help journalists get information on topics they are interested in.
You’ll receive three emails each day from journalists looking for information. If you answer and provide the best response, you might receive a mention with a backlink. You can increase your chances by simultaneously writing a great blog post that answers the same question. Easy peasy…
Use specific tools to let even more people know about great content you created
Write testimonials for services you use
Think about it like this: If one of your customers sent you a long and beautiful testimonial, wouldn’t you want to publish it on your website? If not, are you sure you’re in the right business? When you write a testimonial, be precise. Describe the specific features you liked in detail, and offer advice to other customers, so that you’re providing real and clear value to the reader… You’re practically guaranteed to have your testimonial published and to get a backlink.
Create a directory for your blog and make it important to reciprocate links with you
This is one of the worst SEO techniques I have ever heard of. You’d be better off sending an e-mail to Google’s search quality team and saying “Hey! I’m publishing shitty content on my website and creating dozens of artificial links. Can you please penalize me?”
Submit posts on well-known general blogs that accept guest posts like HuffingtonPost
Here is a list of generalist websites that allow you to guest-post content. When I read some of the content on these sites, I’m rarely blown away by the quality, but it’s definitely better than the average stuff you’ll find online.
Comment on existing blog posts
There is an art to posting comments on other blogs. This art is all about not coming across like you’re just doing it for the backlinks, but rather to bring value above all else. If your website doesn’t tell a story and doesn’t provide any information other than “buy my products,” it’s completely pointless to post a comment linking to your website. The best method here is to:
- Find blogs where links in comments are DoFollow
- Find discussions where you have an opinion, expertise, or knowledge that other people have not expressed. Then, create content on your website about that topic. This content should add value, i.e. a different opinion, more information, more details, more educational value, or more visual imagery (infographics, videos, images,etc.). Anything that is slightly different.
- Finally, post a comment and add a link to the content you made so that people can find out more about your point of view. In this case, the blogger is more likely to accept your comment, and others will see you as a part of the community, not a spammer.
Create a WordPress plugin
This is just a bad idea. Some people suggest creating a WordPress plugin and inserting a backlink to your site in the source code for when people add the plugin to their WordPress blog. Google strictly forbids these kinds of backlinks, and they are very easy to identify. Not to mention that creating a WordPress plugin and letting people know about it is extremely time consuming…
Buy backlinks from platforms
Don’t do it!! Buying backlinks is really easy and can be done using specific platforms or from a provider.
You know, if I worked for Google’s search quality team, these platforms would be the first place I would go to find infringers of Google’s guidelines.
The problem with buying backlinks is that you start living with the Sword of Damocles over your head the moment you buy your first one. Hey, maybe nothing will happen. Or maybe Google will penalize you out the wazoo.
The second problem with buying backlinks is that they’re very expensive. If you want 10 good backlinks for a year, it’s gonna cost you at least $700/month ($8,400 a year). For that money, I really think you’d be better off hiring a good communications agency that can help you come up with ideas for 1-4 great pieces of content that will bring you dozens of backlinks completely organically.
But it’s a question of philosophy and ethics.
Create a Wikipedia page for yourself and include your link in the references section
One of the worst ideas ever…
- Wikipedia links are NoFollow
- Wikipedia moderators will never let you publish this content
- Wikipedia’s mission is precisely not to spam users with self-promotion, but provide useful and objective information
This is one of my favorites. The idea is to use software like Mazen, Majestic, or Moz to find websites that link to your competitors. And most of the time, if a website links to your competitors, there is no reason they shouldn’t link to you too! The best way to achieve this is to:
- Export the pages that link to your competitors
- Select the pages that are most relevant to what you do and where a link to your website would make sense (it can be a guest post, a paid link, a comment…)
- Contact the website owner, ideally through LinkedIn or Twitter (where you’re much more likely to get an answer).
Link Juice Thief
I discovered this technique via this very interesting article by Christoph C. Cemper.
The idea here is to search for pages that your competitors link to and then try to get backlinks from those pages. This technically means you’d be getting part of the link juice your competitors are giving that source page. Isn’t that devilishly great?!
The Link Research Tools software can help you find those backlinks.
This method alone isn’t going to take your website to the top of the SERPs, but it’s quick and easy to do.
The idea is simply to add your best content to aggregators so that you receive a backlink from them. They won’t always be DoFollow, but NoFollow backlinks can be valuable too. You’ll probably get some visitors and visibility that will lead to more organic backlinks.