How do you know what link-building is safe in 2014? Is there such a thing? That’s a question most SEOs, marketers, and business owners have been trying to answer since Google Penguin first hit in April 2012.


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The only answer you can really provide is that all links should be naturally acquired as a byproduct of your brand. As Matt Cutts says above, Bing’s Duane Forrester followed up recently by stating that “You should never know in advance a link is coming, or where it’s coming from.”

People are much more cautious about link-building now, and rightly so – no one wants to leave a footprint for Google. Yet we still all need links! Everyone knows links are still a very strong factor toward organic rankings, and despite all of the algorithm updates, this still isn’t likely to change in the near future.

As an agency we have always developed our own internal guidelines to make sure that link acquisition is more natural and content-driven. Below I have listed these guidelines to share with readers:

1. Build an Audience, Not Links

Your biggest link-building weapon should be your publish button. If you publish content to four readers, unless they are the biggest influencers in your industry, it’s very unlikely to go viral!

Whereas if you have a publisher readership of more than 100,000 subscribers, it’s much more likely to resonate and have a natural outreach effect of shares/links, because you’ve got the attention of the right crowd. Being in this position is the ultimate position you want to build into, but if like most you’re not quite there yet – try leveraging someone else’s audience instead!

Look to Place Content on Sites With Clear Readership Levels.

Don’t take any of these figures too seriously individually, but this can be determined via a combination of the following:

  • Brand recognition of website
  • Number of quality comments on recent posts
  • Social engagement levels of recent posts
  • Number of Facebook fans/Twitter followers (measured against engagement levels)
  • Associations within niche (partner sites, mentions, celebrity writers)

Make It Win-Win.

Always have something to offer the publisher that they can’t get elsewhere (not money – unless the link contains a nofollow attribute and is clearly labelled as sponsored/featured, but even then be careful!) – but think about how you can create outstanding content, crafted specifically to their audience. This can be:

  • Well-researched and relevant data, a study or a news story
  • Something fun, creative or interactive
  • An expert opinion, unique angle or take on a topical/news story

Target the Content to the Readership of the Publisher, Not the Brand.

This process can be worked out with the publisher, but the following should be taken into account:

  • Who are the readers of the publisher? (Age range, demographics, intellect, level of niche interest, familiarity with brand)
  • What topics will interest them?
  • What angle will encourage them to engage with the piece? (How, what, why)
  • What will annoy them? (Overly branded content, overhyping of claims, bland content)
  • What kind of writing style will appeal to them? (lifestyle, scientific, thought-provoking)

Give Them Something That Can Send Them Your Traffic.

Think of a reason, or follow-up why people would click through to your site. If you can create outstanding content, people are more likely to be intrigued – that means they visit your site and hopefully start to read/subscribe to your content. This builds your marketing list and your own audience for future promotions.

Bear in mind that most blogs get paid on a CPM advertiser basis so they are interested in building an audience and supplying them with content that will encourage them to visit the site. If you can create a content piece that you know will resonate and be a big hit with their readers, it’s much harder for them to say no.

2. Human Engagement

Think about what great content looks like; it’s not just about publishing a piece of content that links to you from a strong domain (advertorials and guest posts do that, but it doesn’t make them good links). Great content has human engagement and trust signals, such as recognized authorship, quality comments, social shares from influencers within your industry, co-citations, and links.

Think more about the strength of the page than the domain. If readers don’t care about your links, why should Google?

Analyze how readers have reacted to your post compared to others on the site. If it’s positive, then the site is worth revisiting for future content as it’s a good fit as a target audience; if poorly, then analyze why and try again/look for other external sites to target.

  • How much content is published by the publisher per day? Did your piece get enough time on prominent pages? What’s the quality vs. quantity, or signal vs. noise ratio?
  • Did the publisher share your piece on their social profiles?
  • Did the piece perform strongly in one or two areas (G+, Twitter, comments) but not in any others?
  • Did you share it on your social profiles?
  • Could you have promoted the piece more through paid social channels? (StumbleUpon, Facebook, Outbrain, Taboola, etc.

3. Authorship

Content that is written by a recognized and authoritative author will often create better links and get more engagement than content written anonymously. Even forgetting about the debatable value of Google authorship, if you have a writer with a popular and highly targeted social following, the promotion they are able to provide should be a big boost to your content.

Any extra boost you can have from the author is also likely to increase the organic performance of that article as a knock-on effect from the links, engagement, and social attention generated beyond the level of the publisher.

  • Always have content written or associated with a relevant industry professional/expert
  • Where possible, connect the article to the authors G+ account using the rel=author attribute
  • Encourage authors to promote themselves via social media and build their personal engagement levels.

4. Anchor Text Distribution

Keep it branded where possible, and link to deep URLs where within context – as opposed to just trying to place links to top target money pages.

  • Use a mixture of anchor text that are  branded, brand + phrase, variations
  • Always make anchor text contextual, never link to transactional/commercial content unless you are talking specifically about it. Linking to studies/research is much more natural, this is an original source that is credible and adds value to your content – it’s not a placed link.
  • Don’t force it. Link to informational content if you can and then pass on that link equity more naturally internally. But if you can’t link within context, don’t – you want to build up a strong reputation as a writer, don’t risk it, the SEO value will come in time anyway – so keep it natural.

5. Avoid SEO Footprints

Avoid anything that is old-school SEO, or looks like a link-building footprint. While Google may never know for sure if a link was built or natural, they have the data (and the analysts!) to understand enough signals to give them a pretty clear indication on the common signs.

  • If placing the article is solely for SEO, it’s normally pretty obvious just in the way it’s written and the lack of engagement around the page
  • Try to avoid any of the following terms included in the post title, post URL, or on-page content: paid, guest, advertorial, sponsored, featured.

If the article is being placed for promotional/traffic value (with no intended SEO value) then paid placements are acceptable with the rel=nofollow attribute included and clearly labelled as sponsored/featured content – even then, be careful and don’t overdo it.

6. Link Out to Others

A clear sign of link-building is that you only link to your brand. Mix it up and try to add links to other informational content, news articles, etc. to add credibility to your story. This is how people write naturally to add value to the story, so think about the readers and what they want to see – rather than your own SEO objectives.

  • Ensure you link to any claims or studies that are referenced in the article
  • Link to articles that support/add value to any information given in the article

7. Topical Relevancy

If you’re a dating site and you have links from the finance sector, it looks unnatural – Google has gotten much better at identifying topical relevancy and it’s more about engagement on-page now, which means you need a targeted audience to generate interest.

  • Always establish the theme of the publisher and assess whether it is relevant to your site
  • In cases where the theme isn’t directly relevant, make sure you always have an appropriate angle that connects the publisher with the brand
  • In cases where there are multiple themes/categories within a site, make sure that the article has been placed in the most appropriate section
  • Poor relevancy is usually shown by poor engagement. If articles posted on sites have low engagement levels then that suggests the topic wasn’t relevant enough

8. Data-Driven Brand Assets

To make it PR newsworthy, you need data – run surveys, dig deep into analytics, interview influencers, etc. Make your content much more research heavy: “78 percent of people said…as reported by [brand]” is much more appealing to journalists – this is why data visualization works so well in infographics/HTML5 to get that message across. It’s a lot more time-intensive, but also means your building real brand assets, which have value in itself as long-term brand assets, it’s more sharable, and it’s a natural link target.

  • Offer publishers unique and exclusive insights or data-driven pieces – they are more likely to go for a piece that is contains something unique to them and readers react to new facts and research much better than opinions.

9. Local Link-Building

If you can have one great national idea, think of how you can spin it into lots of local angles.

For example, with a property client we created a visualization of house prices vs. travel time vs. train fares to find the best/worst places to commute into London. This generated great London/national coverage, but then opened up lots of local PR, blogger, and social opportunities afterward.

10. Creativity Wins, But be Prepared to Fail Along the Way

You need to be innovative to stand out and win. But if you’re doing something for the first time, you’ve got to face up to the fact that it might not work. No one can predict what is going to go viral before it goes viral – just make sure you learn from it and improve.

If you just follow the trusted approach that has worked for you in the past, you lose an element of creativity and end up following a templated process. If instead you can provide something that no one has ever done before, and lose the fear of failure – the potential rewards are much bigger at the end.

11. Less Is More

Volume of links should no longer be your goal. Therefore it makes more sense to focus activity on bigger projects that generate high quality but low numbers of links than vice-versa.

  • Find the most authoritative sites within a niche and create a plan to approach them. Analyze what the best content on their site is, and ask how can you create something just as good or better for them?
  • This is a longer game but it is worth it – build that list of dream sites to get links and attention from and then keep working on it.
  • Leverage connections again – too often people look for one link from one domain and then move onto the next. If you’ve found a great audience for your site, leverage it. Forget about SEO and if it has value to publish to an audience, why wouldn’t you do it? And then surely if you’ve written 34 posts on a site, that looks more natural than if you’ve only written one or two – it’s building real authorship, not a guest profile.

12. Co-Citations Are Natural

Following the above example, rather than focusing on hundreds of guest post links, some which will work and others which will set you back, test putting that effort into bigger projects/campaigns. If you can line up additional outreach/attention around the same theme, and let’s say you get 25 links on average per project – surely it makes more sense to put your efforts into promotion of a small number of bigger campaigns.

  • Rather than just focusing on the end product (the links that point directly to you), think about the signals that natural content has. Your links having their own links is a much stronger signal and the link to you becomes a by-product of great content and not the main goal.
  • If content is placed on a big publisher first as an exclusive, they should be linked to from additional outreach/coverage – with the client/brand as the original source – this is how a PR story would break and it’s how a natural link profile would often look.

13. Focus on Traffic, Not the Link

Look to run social promotion campaigns, use social advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit – and content distribution channels such as Outbrain and Taboola – to build more human engagement around the content and think about how you can get this in front of a targeted audience. If people/readers like it, Google is more likely to reward it anyway.

  • Set aside a social budget that can be used to boost engagement with each content piece
  • Ensure that the brand has posted and promoted the content on all their social profiles to get our audience engaging with it

14. What Type of Content Ranks and Attracts Links

Learning is an important step with link-building. Understanding what works best and what your competitors are doing well can prevent lost time on poor content and create better campaigns.

  • There’s some useful analysis in this post – analyzing what type/length of content ranks is important to build a more effective campaign in the future.
  • Tools like Majestic/OSE can be used to find top content pages on a domain, both yours and your competitors. But rather than looking at the link targets, learn what has worked best for them and how to make content that if promoted well it can become a link magnet over the long-term.

Of course, any link-building guidelines need to be an evolving process – but hopefully this was valuable to share and I’d be interested in seeing what other people use as their own. Please let us know in the comments!

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