What is the current state of link building? It turns out it is still alive and kicking!
While backlinks are, admittedly, just one out of hundreds of different signals, they remain one of the most important ranking factors in the SEO industry. Google’s algorithm keeps evolving, but at present, there is still no better way to measure the authority of your content or the trust others place in it.
Naturally, the question then becomes how do SEOs build links these days?
To answer that question, my team and I recently created a brand new industry survey. We polled 628 SEO experts (which included a mix of in-house SEOs, SEO agencies, SEO consultants, and small business SEOs) at SMX Advanced 2017 in Seattle. Then we published our findings in this Link Building Report.
What we found is while links are still crucial to website health, most link building strategies have swung heavily away from quantity and towards quality. That means link building now takes more time, effort, and deliberate action than it once did, but the final payoff is still well worth the effort.
In this article, I will break down the top five most efficient link building methods according to our SEO respondents, and teach you how you can use those same methods to boost your SEO.
1. Creating Cornerstone Assets Such as Data and Research
I will admit to some small satisfaction that our original research revealed the value of original research. Yes, according to the SEOs we asked, investing in original data and research is an efficient link building method a solid 70% of the time - making it the #1 most efficient link building technique.
It is hard to understate the value of original data and research in the current digital landscape. In an industry where “content is king,” there is no content more valuable than current, and previously unpublished industry insights. Holding creative control over this original research means earning backlinks whenever anyone writes a new blog article or social media post that references your findings.
I call this type of research a “cornerstone asset,” because you can build upon your findings by creating all sorts of fresh content - from blog posts, to slide shares, to infographics, and more.
How to use data and research for link building:
Start with a topic you know your audience finds valuable. For example, my readers usually want to know about link building, Ann Handley’s wants to hear about content marketing, and an equity research analysts might want to read about supply-demand trends in their industry.
Conduct independent research and compile your findings. Restrict the scope of your analysis to a specific topic or demographic. Collect as many unique data points as possible - the more representative your research is of an entire niche or industry, the more valuable it is.
Publish your research. Your research won’t earn you any links if nobody knows about it. Spruce up your research with some design elements, such as graphs and charts, and share it with the world.
Create complementary content based on your research. Use your research to create a series of blog posts, podcasts, videos, tweetable stats, and any other content you can think of. The sky’s the limit!
- Promote and share your findings. If you understand your target audience and picked a topic that is guaranteed to tickle their fancy, then you should have no problem finding interested parties to share the fruits of your labor.
2. Paying for (relatively) Legitimate Links
Buying links is bad-practice, old school black hat SEO, and it is liable to get you a Google penalty for your trouble. That said, plenty of opportunities still exist to buy links that are slightly more legitimate - such as paid product reviews, official sponsorships, and creating guest content with a disclosure. Our respondents found legitimate paid methods to be efficient link building methods 68% of the time.
Disclaimer: before we go any further, however, you should know that Google considers any exchange of money or products for links to be a link scheme. If you pay for links, you may be penalized at any time for unnatural link building.
Here is how to build paid links:
Build more organic links than paid links. Personally, I recommend against building paid links - the risk is too high. However, if you are going to build paid links anyway, try to ensure that your link profile never exceeds 10-25% paid links.
Build links slowly and deliberately. Most SEOs these days only generate 1-20 links per month. Given this, I recommend only buying 1-2 of those links - or none at all, if your organic link numbers are low.
Do LOTS of research on target sites first. Vet domains carefully before agreeing to create paid content for them. Look for anything fishy in their domain history and PageRank, and watch out for red flags like lots of spammy outbound links.
Vary your keyword-anchored text. Thousands of reviews that all use the same anchor text send a big red flag to Google that you’re probably buying links. Mix up your link profile with varying anchors and both long-tail keywords and head keywords.
- Always disclose sponsored posts. When you have paid a site to host sponsored content, disclose your involvement. Don’t try to hide paid links from readers, because at best you will erode their trust, and at worst you might earn a Google penalty if they find out.
3. Sharing Content on Social Media
While most SEOs considered social sharing to be an effective link building strategy 68% of the time, link building through social media proved to be far and away the most popular method of link building among our respondents at SMX Advanced.
While some link building strategies were quite popular among specific SEO teams (e.g., SEO agencies used Broken Link Building, SEO consultants used Local Business Websites, etc.), almost every SEO we polled found value in social media - both in sharing content and including links in social media profiles.
How to build links by sharing content on social media:
Use social listening tools to find your audience on social media. Find which platforms earn your brand mentions and focus your attention on those platforms first.
Use your tool to find patterns in your popular content. Look for signs of engagement, such as shares, likes, and comments and ideate similar topics that will engage your audience.
Create high-quality content in the same vein. Create content tailored to your audience’s interests. Note: this is a great time for the research mentioned in step #1!
Share and promote your content. Publish your content and set it loose. If you have done your homework, your audience will likely help you promote it with gusto. Think about the time of publication based upon your audience's social habits and build a social media posting schedule to coincide with that.
- Remarket your content. Don’t stop there! If you tweeted your content, retweet it regularly over the next week. If you posted it on Facebook, share it on other platforms as well. And, even after a week is up, give that content a small boost once per week - you may attract some interested parties who missed your content the first time around.
4. Link Building with Videos
I’m a little surprised that 66% of SEOs found link building with videos to be effective, if only because so many of our hard-earned backlinks wind up in Google’s pocket when we create videos (thanks to YouTube being the de facto video sharing platform).
Nevertheless, the numbers speak for themselves. Many experts have seen a lot of success in self-hosting videos on their website and/or sharing them on their social media pages. If you have been itching to include some video in your backlink building strategy, there’s never been a better time to start.
How to build backlinks with video:
Share and promote any self-hosted videos on social media, as you would any other piece of content.
Reclaim some of the links YouTube’s earned for your content.
Log in to YouTube Analytics > Traffic Sources. Find sites that have embedded your video and reach out to them, requesting that they include a link to your website (if they haven’t already).
- Run your YouTube URLs through backlink checking software. Find websites that have linked to your video and ask them to include a link to your company too.
- Log in to YouTube Analytics > Traffic Sources. Find sites that have embedded your video and reach out to them, requesting that they include a link to your website (if they haven’t already).
5. Publishing Industry-Specific Interviews
The fifth most efficient link building method was to publish PR-based assets - the SEOs we polled found this method effective 65% of the time. Like original research, high-quality interviews will likely be prized by your readers, and they will be keen to share it on your behalf.
Two elements make up a good interview: (1) you need to interview the right person, such as a key influencer and/or a big ticket customer, and (2) you need to ask the right questions. You will keep readers engaged with insights into successful business practices, customer values, and other topics of note.
How to create link-worthy interviews:
Do your homework. Discover which topics your audience finds valuable and which influencers have clout within your niche. If you are interviewing a customer, find info such as company size and success that might make that person a compelling interviewee.
Prepare your questions ahead of time. Compile a list of important questions that will directly satiate your readers’ curiosity and solve their pain points.
Stay flexible. Obviously scripted interviews are tedious to read. Be prepared to steer your interviewee back on track if they go off topic, but if they start saying something interesting then don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions your readers might value.
Publish your findings. Just like original research, fresh interviews are no good if they stay under lock and key.
- Promote and remarket. Share your interview on social media, promote (and re-promote) it regularly, and don’t forget to share it with the person you interviewed - they may want to link to it too!
One of the most interesting revelations I gleaned from our Link Building Report is that not all high-quality content is equally efficient when it comes to link building. Notably, some cornerstone assets performed very well (specifically, data and research), while other cornerstone assets were among the least efficient link building methods (specifically, webinars).
That is not to say that webinars or other types of content are bad, or that you should stop creating them. Remember: backlinks are just one among hundreds of ranking signals, and high-quality assets that don’t earn you links might still be useful for things such as lead gen, brand awareness, and audience growth. At the end of the day, if you are creating content that your audience loves—you are doing okay.
To quote Bruce Clay, President and Founder of Bruce Clay, Inc. and one of our Link Building Report respondents, “In fishing there are a couple of things you have to do. 1) You have to use the right bait; 2) You have to fish where the fish are. That is link building. You have to come up with something that your community cares about and then put it in front of them.”