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Does Link Building Still Matter?
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As part of the original ranking algorithm, backlinks have always been an important ranking signal for Google. Using links to determine trust and authority was one of their biggest assets that allowed them to overtake competing search engines. However, since the Penguin update back in 2012, people have been predicting the end of link building as SEO. Some reasons for this are:
- Devaluing link spam made benefiting from link building more difficult.
- Punishing sites for participating in link schemes made link building much more risky if you got it wrong.
- There was some ambiguity surrounding what exactly would run afoul of Penguin, which scared many people away from link building entirely.
- SEOs jumping on the content marketing wagon.
These factors combined to push people away from the idea of manual link building and toward “link earning” through content marketing — the idea that quality content is link bait that will just naturally attract links. This was based on the belief that highly-shared content would bring in lots of links.
The problem? That isn’t really the case — there is almost no correlation between shares and links. In fact, the majority of content doesn’t receive any shares or links at all.
So what does this mean? Creating good content is necessary to building links, but it isn’t enough. Links don’t happen on their own. They require strategic, manual promotion to the right audience. And since links are still an integral part of Google’s ranking algorithm, failure to do link building will limit your SEO and therefore your reach.
If you’re still doubting the importance of link building, the fact that Google has incorporated Penguin into its core algorithm is proof of their importance for rankings.
How to Build Links
Step 1: Create Some Content
The number one most important part of building links is to first create content worth sharing. Easier said than done, of course. So how can you create a content strategy geared toward backlinks? It’s actually pretty simple: leverage the content that already gets links.
People link to content they find useful, accurate and unique. To figure out what sort of content meets that criteria, look at what your audience is already sharing. There are tools out there like Ahrefs and Buzzsumo that let you search by topic so you can find articles in your niche that people found useful enough to link to. Pages with a lot of shares and links show that there’s already considerable demand for that content, which makes securing links much easier.
Use Majestic to identify some of your own content that’s managed to attract valuable links. You don’t necessarily want to repurpose this content because you’ll cannibalize your own links, but it will give you some good ideas for content your audience likes. If you’re feeling a bit sneaky, you can engage in some corporate espionage to find your competitors’ highly shared content to use so you can usurp some of their links.
Once you’ve got some good pieces of content, make it your own by making it better. Some good ways to rewrite and upgrade content are:
- Update it: There’s a good chance there’s some older, less relevant content out there getting linked to, particularly if you’re in a fast-paced industry. Update it by adding new, relevant information and links to make it more useful. A good example of this type of thing is 302 redirects: Until recently it was SEO best practice to avoid 302 redirects as it was thought they didn’t pass full PageRank. That changed this year, so there are still lots of articles about SEO best practices out there telling people to avoid 302 redirect. This your opportunity to earn a link by correcting this out of date content.
- Expand it: Some of the most shared content are lists like “top 10 kale recipes” or “5 ways to organize your home.” Improve on these lists and adding to the number of entries. If you can, aim to double or even triple them. Some of these longer lists don’t go into much detail or don’t include any references. If that’s the case, add some detail and links, even if it’s just a sentence or two for each point. This makes content way more valuable.
- Redesign it: Design is a big part of user experience — people won’t link to sites that don’t look good or are hard to read. Add some aesthetically-pleasing visual elements to help readers get more out of it. Or, if it makes sense, turn it into an infographic. Infographics are some of the most popular forms of content on the web in terms of sharing and linking. You can make it even easier to share by creating embed code that links back to your site.
Blogs are one of the best, and most popular, ways to add published content to your website, but it’s not always the right choice for everyone. Having a blog just for SEO won’t really help you much if you don’t have the resources to maintain it and consistently publish new content. If that’s the case, concentrate on creating longer pieces of evergreen content that will stay relevant for months or even years. Evergreen content is a good idea even if you don’t have a blog, and will help you protect your links from people doing what we just described.
Step 2. Build a List and a Spreadsheet
This is a relatively simple step, but it can make or break your link building. Successful campaigns require sticking with a well thought out strategy and tracking your progress. The next step in your link building strategy is to cultivate a list of potential links. If you haven’t done some competitor link research yet, do so now. You’ll end up with a list of pages that are interested in your niche, cover topics relevant to your website and show the propensity to link to content similar (but not nearly as good) to your own.
Then, put together a list of other websites to reach out to in order to build links. Here are a couple of tools to use for this:
- AuthorCrawl: AuthorCrawl uses the Moz API to find links to a URL and then crawls those pages looking for authorship markup. It then collects information from the author’s linked Google+ page so you can determine their influence and position in the industry. You’ll also get the author’s URL and Page and Domain Authority information.
- BlogDash: BlogDash is a blogger outreach platform. It has a searchable database of bloggers that you can filter by category to include only those who write about topics relevant to your business and by Google rank to maximize your reach. You’ll also see recent topics they’ve covered and, most importantly, their contact information.
Once you’ve got your list of names and information, get organized. Dump your list of bloggers into a spreadsheet with columns for subject, domain, reach, authority, recent posts and a few columns to note outreach efforts like date and methods of contact and response. You might be tempted to sort this list solely by Domain Authority or reach, but resist the impulse. It’s more efficient and you’ll see better results if you focus your efforts on writers who are more relevant to your business.
Step 3: Manual Outreach
As we said before, link building outreach is a manual process. You can automate it if you really want to, but people can sniff out form letters a mile away and you’ll just fill up spam folders. For best results, write your emails yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use a general outline for format. Use the following elements in your email templates to help streamline your process:
- Your added value: Writers probably won’t be interested in linking to something they’ve previously covered, especially if it doesn’t add anything for their readers. Start off your email by telling them how your article or website will fill in a gap in their previous post. A great way to add value here is to offer a solution to broken links. Use the Check My Links extension to find invalid links that could be redirected to your site.
- Hyperlink anchor text: Don’t copy and paste URLs directly into your email — it looks like you automated your outreach by pulling information out of a database. Instead, hyperlink using anchor text. It will give your emails a more polished look and if you use generic anchor text (like “here”), they’ll look less spammy. If you’re referencing an article they’ve written recently, don’t worry too much about linking back to that article — writers generally remember their recent work.
- Unique subject line: You’re likely competing with dozens, or even hundreds for the really popular writers, of people for their attention. Use the subject line as a lure, making it specific enough that the recipient will figure out what topic you’re contacting them on, but vague enough they won’t be able to tell you’re hitting them up for a link. If your email subject reads like you’re doing mass email outreach it will get deleted unopened.
- Your contact info: Add your personal contact information including email, website, social media and even a phone number. Spammers don’t give out their details so this will add to your credibility.
Include a personal touch whenever you can. Bland, generic emails will leave a bad taste in your recipient’s mouth, which could damage your relationship and impact your efforts going forward.
In the beginning you’ll probably only get a response from a small percentage of your list, but that’s ok. Outreach is as much about building the relationship as it is about getting a specific link. Plus, you reached out to these bloggers because they have a big audience and/or a lot of link juice to pass, so just a few links can have big returns.
Step 4: Link Reclamation
Link reclamation is a slightly different form of link building, but still requires manual link building. It’s the process of finding and fixing broken links pointing at your website. These links can happen for a wide variety of reasons: You moved a page on your site or the owner of the linking site has a typo in the link’s href URL.
Use Google Search Console’s Crawl Error report to find and export a list of your URLs that return 404 errors.
Go back to your backlinks tool like Majestic or Ahrefs, and export your list of backlinks. Copy your list of URLs returning 404 into this spreadsheet. Use VLOOKUP to map your backlink URLs to status code. Just sort or filter your list by status to see your broken backlinks. Alternatively, once you have your list of backlinks, crawl them with Screaming Frog using list mode and filter the results by Client Error (4XX).
Compiling your list of dead backlinks is the hard part. The next stage, outreach, is ideally as easy as emailing the linking site’s owner with an updated URL. Point out that fixing dead links is in their best interest as well because it improves user experience and SEO. You should record a high conversion rate for these emails.
Since the beginning, link building has gone hand in hand with SEO — you can’t do one without the other. Links tell search engines that people think your site is relevant and valuable enough to endorse to their audience, and their importance to ranking in SERPs isn’t going away anytime soon. That means manual link building campaigns are still important for your digital marketing. The good news is that if you produce good content and approach link building in a strategic, organized way, your efforts will pay off with more links and higher search rankings.