Author: Debbie Chew
Writing content that fulfills search intent alone doesn’t necessarily mean that content will attract visitors. That’s only one of many signals that Google looks at. Another one is backlinks—but are they actually worth spending your time and budget on?
You might hear people say that you don’t need to build links (or some other link building myth), which may be true for a select few entities, but is not the case for the vast majority of brands and publishers. In this post, I’ll explain why link building is important to your overall SEO strategy and how to get started with it for your website.
This post will cover:
Why link building is important
Within the realm of SEO, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your organic visibility, but not enough time (and resources) to be able to do everything. Link building is one of those areas of SEO that businesses may set aside without realizing how much opportunity they’re actually leaving behind.
Content, technical SEO, and backlinks are the SEO trifecta
Remember the story of the three little pigs? Three little pigs each build a house made from different materials. Then, the Big Bad Wolf comes by and blows down all but the brick house.
Imagine that each house is, instead, a website. The first piggy, who only focuses on content creation for their website, is building a straw house. Your competition (the Big Bad Wolf) easily knocks down the straw house, as can be the case if a large brand enters your niche or you simply have a lot of competitors.
The second piggy then decides to focus on content and technical SEO (or, alternatively, skipping technical SEO in favor of content and backlinks). The wooden house gets built but doesn’t last very long either.
Content and technical SEO alone may not be enough for Google to recommend your website in search results if it has doubts about your authority (which I’ll talk about in the next section). Or, if you focus only on content and links but have technical SEO issues (like poor site structure, lots of orphan pages, and slow pages), the links you do receive won’t be as beneficial compared to a site with proper technical SEO.
Now, in order to create a sturdy brick house, you’ll need to balance your SEO strategy so that it encompasses content, technical SEO, and backlinks. This is especially important for businesses in competitive niches where there are several Big Bad Wolves. You may even need backlinks to your pages in order for them to show up on the first page of Google’s search results.
Even if you’re not in a competitive niche and have been publishing good content consistently, if you find that your site only shows up on the second or third page of search results, you can benefit from getting more backlinks (so long as your site doesn’t have any major technical issues).
Links help convey E-A-T
Let’s say your friend is feeling a bit under the weather and they’re not sure if they have a cold or flu, so they ask for your help. You’re not entirely sure either, so you read a few articles titled “Cold vs. Flu” on different websites. Since your friend is ill and fatigued, you need to decide which article your friend should read to understand if they have a cold or flu.
How would you choose? You’ll probably select one that was written by a medical professional and recommended by other medical professionals, ideally published by an established company in the healthcare industry.
Like you, Google also has to decide what pages to show based on which pages have the most expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness—or E-A-T. Google has said in the past that “E-A-T is largely based on links and mentions on authoritative sites,” so it’s really important to make a concerted effort to put your website in a position to attract these links and mentions.
If you want to learn more about improving E-A-T for your website, read Marie Haynes’ article “According to Google: How to recover from a core update.” For now, let’s jump into link building.
Getting started with link building
Now that we understand why link building can be a crucial part of your SEO, how do we actually get links?
To proactively earn links, you’ll need to engage in link building either in-house or by outsourcing it.
Is building links in-house or outsourcing it better for your business?
When choosing between these two options, your decision will largely be based on your website’s needs. Since I have experience with both link building in-house and outsourcing it, I created the following chart (based on my experience) to help you weigh your options.
Domain and product expertise
Your team is more knowledgeable about your product and industry. They'll tend to prospect better and avoid links from irrelevant sites.
Certain niches (like CBD, adult, and gambling) are difficult to get links to. If your website is in this category, you might want to find an agency with experience link building in your niche.
Your team may focus more on quality and can utilize your existing service/product's partner network. You can also experiment with different tactics to identify what works best for your industry.
Link quality can vary depending on who you hire, your budget, and how they build links.
Unless you have a lot of internal resources dedicated to link building, outsourcing can yield more links.
Outsourcing will typically help you build links in a higher volume and velocity.
It may not cost "extra," but you'll need to reallocate existing resources towards this.
You'll usually need to allocate a few thousand dollars per month.
When deciding between building links in-house or outsourcing, there are four factors you should consider:
01. Domain and product expertise
02. Link quality
03. Link quantity
Since the first one (domain and product expertise) has to do with how well your team understands your product and industry, I’ll focus on the remaining three.
In the past, Google’s John Mueller has stated that it’s better to focus on link quality than quantity. This means that one link from a site that’s authoritative in your niche and relevant to your business is more beneficial than several links from a low quality, irrelevant website. A good, quality link is not only a positive signal to Google, but it can also drive traffic and conversions to your site.
When link building in-house, focus on link quality even if it means that you’ll build fewer links overall. If you outsource, you’ll be able to build more backlinks but the quality may not be as high.
As for link quantity, keep in mind that your site doesn’t need to have the highest number of backlinks or unique referring domains to be at the top of the search results. Compare your keyword rankings and backlink profile against competitors for a rough estimate of what you need.
The last consideration is budget: If you have a marketing budget that allows you to hire an agency, you should probably outsource your link building in order to focus on higher impact tasks. But, if you’re a small team with little or no budget, it may be better to build links in-house.
If you have the budget, you can either hire someone to join your team to build links in-house or work with an agency. Remember that you may also take a hybrid approach, such as hiring an in-house link building specialist while outsourcing certain tasks to a virtual assistant (e.g., email outreach or finding link opportunities).
In-house link building: How to get started
To start building links in-house, the first step is to establish your link building goals. Then, you can work backwards to decide what types of links you’ll want to go after and the link building tactics that you should try.
01. Why do I want to build links? What do I want to achieve?
02. What pages do I want to build links to?
03. Who would potentially want to link to my page? This will help you build a list of prospects.
04. How can I make my existing/new page(s) more link-worthy? If you’re not sure where to start, you can also look at competitor pages that have a high volume of backlinks (this will require an SEO tool). Look at those pages and try to understand why other websites would link to them.
Scenario 1: You want to drive traffic to your site
If you want to drive traffic to specific pages on your site, you’ll need to decide on which group of pages those should be. As an example, let’s say you have a website that sells pet grooming supplies and you’ve written extensive guides on how to groom different types of dogs.
When you think about who would potentially want to link to your guides, you might focus on getting links from niche industry publications like Petpedia.com (not a real site)—even if it isn’t the most authoritative site. The traffic you could potentially get would likely be people genuinely interested in learning how to groom their dogs, and that relevance positions visitors to start proceeding down your sales funnel.
Scenario 2: You want to increase brand awareness or mentions
In this case, you might want to explore doing digital PR and building connections with journalists. When it comes to brand awareness, you’re usually aiming to get links to your homepage or specific product pages. This means that it’s less about making those pages more link-worthy, and more about crafting the stories that you pitch to journalists.
Scenario 3: You want to rank higher
Similar to the first scenario, you’ll want to identify which pages on your website are your “money pages” to narrow down what pages to focus your efforts on. These are typically going to be pages that rank for bottom-of-the-funnel keywords and drive sign-ups and revenue for your business. They’re also generally harder to get backlinks to these pages though since the content tends to be more commercial—think of your product pages, for example.
Making these pages more informational can help improve its chances of getting links, though you’ll need to find a balance between making it link-worthy and optimizing the page for conversions.
Link building tactics to get started with
I’ve shared my go-to link building tactics in the past, and in this section, I’ll narrow down which ones I’d recommend when you first begin building links for your site.
Turning unlinked mentions into links
If you have access to SEO tools like Semrush or Ahrefs, you can use them to create alerts so that you are notified whenever someone mentions your brand.
After you receive an alert, check the page and evaluate whether or not it’d be appropriate to link to your website. If it is, reach out to the author (or site owner) to thank them for mentioning your brand and suggest what page they can consider linking to. Be friendly and remember that they’re not obligated to link to you.
Creating link-worthy content
Since you are probably already creating content on your site, note that there are some content types that are more link-worthy than others.
As you build your content calendar, include one or more of the following content types. For each content type, I’ve included an example for our fictitious pet grooming supplies site to give you a better idea of what I mean:
Guides: “How to groom a shiba inu”
Glossary pages: “What is dematting”
Statistics posts: “80 dog statistics that you should know”
Research reports: “State of dog grooming”
Guest posting is when you write a blog post for another website and get a backlink to your website, which I’ve talked about on Episode 10 of Wix’s SERPs Up podcast.
Before I go any further, please note that although Google doesn’t discourage guest posts, they can violate Google’s guidelines “when the main intent is to build links in a large-scale way.” To fight link spam, Google strongly recommends using the correct rel attributes to help Google understand your links. Also, you should also never publish content that contains spammy links—it’s not good for you or the website publishing your post.
With the above guidelines in mind, I recommend reaching out to your partners to see if it’s possible to write a guest post for their blog. Before doing so, actually read their blog to familiarize yourself with their target audience and the topics they like to cover. Then, send out personalized pitches.
The key to a good guest post is that whatever topic you end up writing about, the content needs to be genuinely helpful and relevant to their audience while leveraging your expertise. This means your post shouldn’t be too self-centered or promotional.
Debbie Chew shares link building tips on the SERP's Up SEO Podcast.
Outsourced link building: How to get started
Before you start searching for a link building agency, take a step back and define your goals (which I’ve covered in the previous section). Also, have a budget in mind so that you can filter out agencies that are out of your price range.
How to choose a link building agency
Once your goals and budget are defined, here’s how I’d narrow down the list of potential agency partners.
Understand how they build links
The tactics that agencies use are one of the most important things to watch out for when you outsource your link building. Again, you want to avoid spammy link building at all costs. Some red flags include:
Agencies that sell a high volume of links at a low cost
Emails offering you the ability to purchase links from a list of sites
Private blog network (PBN) links
Guarantees (i.e., buy links from us and we guarantee that your site ranks #1 for a particular keyword)
Vendors that are secretive about how they build links
Many link building agencies specialize in guest posting and niche edits (which is when you convince an external site to link to you in an existing piece of content). Some agencies have a tiered system for guest posts, which means links from high authority sites are more expensive than medium authority ones.
There’s also digital PR agencies, which will work with you to pitch stories about your brand/product to journalists. Unlike “traditional” link building agencies where you pay per link, digital PR agencies charge per project. Although it’s difficult for them to guarantee the number of links you’ll get, the link quality tends to be higher.
Understand their past work
Like any other agency you hire for your company, you should request to see samples of their past work. Check those references and gauge the quality of those pages: Do the sites seem spammy (i.e., would you click on a link from those sites)? Are there any noticeable spelling or grammatical errors that suggest the website publishes low quality content?
If they aren’t able to provide any examples, you may be better off finding a different agency.
You should also ask if the agency has helped other businesses in your industry or a similar industry. This can be a big plus as they may have a better idea of what works/doesn’t work in terms of link building for your industry, or have already established relationships that they can leverage on your behalf.
After you hire
Once you’ve hired an agency, the work doesn’t stop there. It’s important to regularly review the links that were built to make sure that the agency is hitting the targets that were originally set. Most agencies should provide you with some sort of reporting to help you keep track of their progress.
Be sure to regularly audit what pages your backlinks are on. This means clicking on each link to:
Confirm there is indeed a backlink to your site
Evaluate whether or not the page/domain looks sketchy
Check the quality of the content (i.e., does it make sense? Is it helpful?)
Confirm whether or not the site advertises that you can pay to submit content
If you find a number of low-quality content pieces, forum links, comment spam, profile page links (when someone creates an account on a website that allows them to create public profile pages, such as Product Hunt or social media sites), or links that anyone could easily create, then I’d highly recommend hiring a different agency since these features may be getting manipulated by others for link building purposes.
Assuming that there aren’t any issues with link quality, keep an eye on which pages (on your site) the links point to and how those pages rank. For example, you might initially have the agency focus on building links to your guides. If the organic visibility of those pages improve, the agency can shift focus to a different section of your site.
May the links be in your favor
Link building is important, but don’t forget to also work on creating quality content and monitoring technical issues to improve your site’s user experience and ensure that search engines can properly crawl it. Again, all three areas are needed to help you build a sturdy brick house without being worried about the Big Bad Wolf (competition) or another Google algorithm update.
When deciding on building links in-house or outsourcing it, you should choose the best option for your business. One isn’t better than the other. With this guide, I hope you are able to make a decision based on the quality of links you want, the number of links you’d like to receive, and the resources available to your team.
Keep in mind that whatever you decide, you can always adjust along the way. You might do it in-house, see results, and decide to outsource in order to increase your link velocity—or vice versa. No matter what, it’s crucial to regularly monitor your link building efforts to make sure that you’re building a healthy backlink profile.