How to Design and Execute a Backlinking Strategy that Works
SEO professionals have many strategies available to them to increase the visibility of their websites/pages in search, including content and inbound marketing, proper use of meta data, and backlinking strategy. The latter is one of the more prevalent methods of building search engine visibility, but it is often misunderstood and/or misapplied. Backlinking is key to white hat, gray hat, and black hat strategies, and indeed, speaks to the heart of how search engines index and evaluate websites.
No matter what set of strategies an SEO professional eventually settles on, nor whether they are handling SEO in-house or outsourcing it, it is important to understand what backlinking is and how can it affect SERP and other measures of SEO success.
In this article, we will cover 1) what backlinking is and how it affects SEO; 2) inorganic vs. organic backlinking; 3) designing a backlinking strategy that works; and 4) notes on executing your backlinking strategy.
WHAT IS BACKLINKING AND HOW DOES IT AFFECT SEO?
Backlinking is the process of obtaining links to one’s website in order to improve overall search visibility. Moz, a leading software firm identifies three types of backlinks:
- Natural Links: Others give these links to websites without any action taken by the website’s owners. For example, a newspaper reports on a corporation and includes a link in on their website to the corporation’s website.
- Outreach Links: Outreach links are those that SEO practitioners try to obtain through direct action. These are the basis of many backlinking strategies.
- Self-Created Links: These are links that SEO practitioners can place on third-party websites for SEO purposes.
Fundamentally, search engines use programs called spiders or crawlers, which travel from link to link online, indexing and evaluating what they find. Using proprietary ranking algorithms, these programs assess the popularity and relevance of websites and webpages on a continuous basis.
Early on in search history, crawler algorithms assumed that the more linking to a particular website, the more popular that website must be. This led to SEO practitioners employing a variety of tactics to garner a large number of links to their webpage. In many cases, these links were low quality – stemming from irrelevant sites. In some cases, SEO practitioners created new websites designed for no other purpose than to provide links to the websites the SEO practitioners were trying to promote.
The major search engines grew wise to this and incorporated an emphasis on the quality of links, as well as natural links (see below). Today the exact degree to which the quality and quantity of backlinks affects SERP is unknown. However, search engines have publicly stated that backlinks do matter quite a bit.
When assessing backlink quality, search engines consider:
This refers to how often the site itself earns (or SEO practitioners obtain for it) new backlinks, as well as the variety and quality of the sites from which the backlinks stem. More value is assigned to the rate of natural backlinks obtained than outreach or self-created backlinks.
One aspect of search engine algorithms is the capacity to “trust” certain domains with histories of not harboring spam. How a website domain ranks as far as a search engine’s trust system is an important part of link quality assessment.
Anchor text refers to text that a URL displays other than its web address. These internal links can heighten the visibility of particular webpages and even websites.
Search engines assess not just the domains linking to a site but where those domains themselves link to. In this way, they can better assess the quality of the backlink, and in turn make a determination about the quality of the site.
Local/topic-specific link popularity
Along with link neighborhood, crawlers assess how popular a link is within its “neighborhood” of links related by topic, and by common location. SEO practitioners can optimize branded keywords in links and push sharable link-enriched content to increase their popularity.
Overall link popularity
Fundamentally, websites that are more popular are always going to enjoy more natural links than those that do not. Once search engines weed out spam links and unnatural links, they do assess the quantity of backlinks a website has.
Crawlers also assess the distribution of links shared on social networks. These links are not treated the same as backlinks for ranking purposes by the major search engines, as it is simply too easy to generate them. However, search engines do pay attention to how widely branded keywords, content and links are shared on these networks.
INORGANIC VS. ORGANIC BACKLINKING
All backlinks a firm tries to obtain should be diverse, authoritative, and relevant. Firms and websites may develop organic backlinks through the course of natural operations, such as publishing content or PR activities. These are known as organic backlinks (what Moz refers to as natural backlinks).
Firms may also obtain backlinks from link exchanges and purchases, from a variety of sites that are not necessarily a fit for your content/website. These are known as inorganic backlinks. These can be either outreach or self-created links. These typically have less value than organic backlinks in search assessments of website popularity and relevance.
Search engines occasionally modify their algorithms to penalize those websites with high numbers of inorganic backlinks. For example, in 2011, Google released Google Panda – an update to its search algorithm designed specifically to diminish the search visibility of low-content, low-quality websites. Many sites designed solely for SEO purposes, such as link directories, suffered a steep decline in their search rankings. Others that used a number of black hat strategies, such as duplicate content, saw similar declines.
Obtaining organic backlinks takes time, but the results of this strategy are sustainable over time. Websites with large quantities of organic backlinks are largely immunized from updates like Panda.
DESIGNING A BACKLINKING STRATEGY THAT WORKS
The basis of a good backlinking strategy is a good content marketing strategy. SEO practitioners should strive to produce content that others share and distribute, as well as to which they create backlinks. This white hat strategy, known as content marketing, is the best way to create backlinks over time. A highly effective subset of content marketing – inbound marketing – involves the development of content that drives traffic back to the website through backlinks. While inbound marketing is used more directly for increasing traffic than increasing a website’s position in search engine results, search engines do also evaluate overall traffic in website SEO assessments. Moreover, increased traffic can increase the likelihood of a website obtaining natural backlinks from users.
To design and execute a strong content marketing strategy, SEO practitioners should involve marketers and copywriters to create a steady stream of compelling and current content aligned with both the firm’s brand standards and SEO goals. These content developer should create a content roadmap, a document that outlines what, when, and how content is to be created. Content should be developed that can generate enough interest to elicit organic backlinks, as well as that incorporates backlinks in the content itself. The marketers and SEO practitioners should consider both the channel’s marketing ROI and SEO ROI, and schedule content distribution to not only achieve marketing goals but also SEO trends as well.
Public relations (PR) can greatly enhance SEO efforts. PR involves increasing the public profile of a firm in both offline and online media channels. PR professionals are looking to get the firm’s product mentioned in The New York Times and other major news outlets, industry publications, major blogs, and everywhere else that is feasible. SEO practitioners should incorporate their organization’s PR departments into SEO efforts, because PR practitioners can become a great source of outreach and self-created backlinks. Their efforts can also increase the likelihood of the organization obtaining organic backlinks Great sources of PR-related backlinks include:
Help A Reporter Out (HARO)
This free service connects reporters in need of quick expert commentary with agency and in-house PR professionals. PR professionals can work to ensure that the reporters provide a relevant backlink to their organization’s website.
Press release syndication
Many press release syndication services, such as PRWeb or PRNewswire, can provide a great source of backlinks (and, of course, PR). Syndication allows the press release to live on a number of websites, providing backlinks from a variety of different domains, without the content creator being penalized for duplicate content.
Guest blog posts
This provides a great way to increase a brand’s exposure and build credibility, as well as generate a solid backlink. The higher the visibility of the blog, the better the quality of the backlink.
Microsites used to promote co-sponsored events and/or initiatives can provide a strong source of backlinks. While these sites themselves may not have the time to develop high search rank on their own, if they are on subdomains of well-established domain names, they (and by extension backlinks stemming from them) may be assessed highly in terms of quality.
Social network profiles
Many social network profiles proffer nofollow links only, to prevent their abuse for SEO uses. Dofollow backlinks can be obtained from the social media profiles of YouTube, HubPages, WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Reddit, and LinkedIn.
Online review sites
Product/service testimonials on third-party consumer reporting sites can provide a good source of quality backlinks (and good PR, assuming a well-reviewed product/service).
Once the go-to source for backlinks, link directories – webpages that aggregate and categorize links for SEO purposes, no longer hold the same SEO boost they once did. These sources of unnatural links however can help only if those are televant link directories.
SEO practitioners can send product reviews to firms for use on their websites and include a backlink. Many firms will add the testimonial, complete with backlink, just to show off consumer appreciation of their product.
Website feedback sites
Websites that provide feedback on the design or layout of other websites can be a good, easy source of dofollow links.
Infographics are a very popular source of content, often making up the entirety of blog posts. Consider tapping marketing/research/PR to create infographics on current topics, post them, share them, or offer them to third-parties. Make sure to embed a backlink.
These are just some of the ways to incorporate backlinking strategies into a solid content marketing plan. Once a firm has planned and begun to execute its content strategy, they must regularly assess the impact of published and distributed content on overall SEO (using an analytics program like Web Analytics), and course-correct if/where necessary. Just as channels and content were determined by looking at both marketing and SEO goals, adjustments should be made with marketing goals in mind as well.
Depending on one’s SEO goals, practitioners may need to improve website visibility quickly. Black hat and gray hat approaches may ramp up a website’s search engine rankings relatively quickly. Many of these techniques incorporate some aspects of backlinking. For example, SEO practitioners can create what are known as link pyramids – which are websites solely designed to provide backlinks to other sites. Hidden links – backlinks that are invisible to humans, can be placed on link pyramids, and doorway pages – pages solely designed to redirect visitors to other pages, as well as in widgets. For practitioners with a sizable budget, buying competitor websites to either delete them or provide a source of backlinks, may be an option. Nevertheless, practitioners may suffer significant decreases in ranking, and even be delisted, for excessive use of these techniques.
NOTES ON EXECUTING YOUR BACKLINKING STRATEGY
Whether one chooses white hat, gray hat, or black hat SEO strategies, SEO practitioners should consider a few fundamental things when designing and executing a backlinking strategy.
Properly oversee SEO vendors
When obtaining the services of a third-party firm to design and execute SEO strategies, a firm should have a clear idea of how the firm will execute the plan. The firm, not the vendor will suffer any punitive measures proffered by search engines (not to mention potentially be liable for damages, should the firm implement illegal black hat tactics). Understand that firms guaranteeing high organic rankings are likely either overselling themselves or do not understand SEO.
Consistently add backlinks over time
Sudden spikes in backlinks signal to search engines that a website’s owners purchased backlinks. This may lead to the purchasing organization’s website being penalized.
Optimize anchor tags with keyword rich content
These internal links can have a significant SEO impact on internal webpages. However, don’t overdo this. Doing though, even inadvertently, will be read by most search engines as black hat SEO, and may net penalties.
Obtain backlinks from a variety of relevant sources
If all backlinks stem from one or two sources, search engines assume that the website in question is not relevant.
Don’t forget social
Many SEO practitioners only think of backlinking strategies as relates to the major search engines. Social networks have their own search engines, some of them quite robust. YouTube’s search engine, for example, is more heavily searched than Yahoo. Backlinking on social networks that offer no follow links should be assessed in terms of potential for growing and increasing traffic both to branded social channels and to the corporate website, which itself is assessed by search engines for SEO purposes. Backlinks should also be added wherever possible on socially sharable content.
There’s more to SEO
Backlinking is just one of many strategies, and should be used just as judiciously as the others.