With all that is changing in the SEO, link-building and online marketing world, how do you know what link-building you should be doing in 2014? Is there a way to know? That’s a question most marketers and business owners have been trying to answer since Google Penguin first hit the web in April 2012. And in all honesty, the only answer you can really get is that all links should be naturally acquired as a byproduct of your brand. People are much more cautious about link-building now, and for very good reason – no one wants to leave a footprint for Google. Yet we still all need links! Everyone and their brother knows links are still a strong factor toward organic rankings, and despite all of the algorithm updates, this still isn’t likely to change in the near future. Long-term perhaps, but not in the near future.
As an agency, MarketingModo has 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. Forget Links, Build an Audience
Your best link-building tool should be the publish button on your CMS. If you publish content to only a handful of readers, unless they are the biggest influencers in your industry, and they might be-you never know, but typically it’s very unlikely to be distributed far and going viral would be a pipe dream. However, if you have a readership of more than 1,000 or 10,000 subscribers, the job of distribution is much easier and it is much more likely to resonate and have a natural outreach effect of shares/links, because you’ve got the attention of the right crowd. This is beyond important. Being in this position is the ultimate position you want to build into, this is what you want to achieve and strive for but, if like most you’re not quite there yet. Don’t despair; we have all been there at one point or another. One highly recommended tactic to use if you don’t have your own audience is to try leveraging someone else’s instead! But how does someone do that you may ask. Well young padawan, let me tell you:
Look to Place Content on Sites with Clear and Hopefully High Readership Levels.
You can clearly judge this by looking at the combination of the five stats below but don’t take any of these figures too seriously on their own; you must look at them as a collective whole:
• Website’s brand recognition and awareness
• Number of good quality comments on recent posts
• Level of social engagement for recent posts
• Number of Facebook fans/Twitter followers
• Associations within niche such as partner sites, mentions, celebrity writers
Make It Win-Win For Both Parties.
It’s an extremely good idea to always have something to offer the publisher that they can’t get elsewhere. Money or paying for links should never ever be considered unless the link contains a nofollow attribute and is clearly labeled as being a sponsored or featured link and even that may not save you from having Google come down on you like the Hammer of the Gods – but it is far better to think about how you can create fantastic content, crafted specifically to their audience. It should be something that their audience will appreciate and find useful. This can be:
• Well-researched and relevant data, a study or a news story. Infographic are amazingly good at accomplishing this. People are more visual today anyway and you increase the likelihood of it being shared.
• Something fun, creative or interactive. This is the gamification factor that is creeping into the digital marketing world. Make it fun, make it interactive and you have a dynamite piece of content
• An expert opinion, unique angle or take on a topical/news story. Experts are experts and people look to them for guidance. Establish yourself as that expert with your own unique views. This has the added benefit of improving your credibility.
Target the Content to the Audience of the Publisher, Not the Publisher Itself
The details of this process can be worked out with the publisher, but the following should definitely be taken into account:
• Who are the readers of the publisher? (Yes, we are talking demographics here. Age range, demographics, intellect, level of niche interest, familiarity with brand)
• What topics will interest them? (Take a look at previous posts and see what they responded well to by the amount of likes, shares and comments)
• What angle will encourage them to engage with the piece? (How, what, why)
• What will annoy them? (Overly branded content, overhyping of claims, sales and bland content will have you wishing you never heard of link-building or content marketing)
• What kind of writing style will appeal to them? (once again take a look at previous posts to see what style of writing appeals to the audience and readership of the publisher)
Give Them Something That Will Send Them To Your Site.
Think of a reason why people would click-through to your site. This is the common dilemma of the paid search marketing world so if you have a spare PPC marketer hanging around bring them into the discussion as they deal with it daily in their ads. If you can create great content as part of your content marketing strategy, people are more likely to be interested and intrigued – that means they visit your site and hopefully start to read and subscribe to your content rather than bounce in less than ten seconds. This builds your internal marketing list and your own audience for future promotions. Keep in mind that most blogs get paid on a CPM 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 piece of content that you know will resonate and be a big hit with their readers, it’s much harder for them to say no. In the words of The Godfather, “Make them an offer that they can’t refuse.”
2. Human Engagement
This is a very important area but sadly one that is often overlooked in the quest for SEO and keyword density. 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 (yes, content such as guest posts do that, but it doesn’t make them good links in fact Google is challenging that fact fundamentally at present). Good content has human engagement and trust signals, such as recognized authorship, quality comments, social shares from influencers within your industry, co-citations, and links. It’s not about writing a piece that uses a certain keyword a certain amount of time. It’s about the human interaction and engagement with that piece of content that matter.
Look at it this way. If readers don’t care about your content and 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 would seem to be a good fit as a target audience; if they react poorly or not at all, then analyze why and try again or look for other external sites to target. Some key factors you will want to look at include:
• How much content is published daily by the publisher? Did your piece get enough time on prominent and popular pages? What is the quality vs. quantity, or signal vs. noise ratio? Are you leading the flock or are you hidden in the herd?
• Did the publisher share your piece on their social profiles? Rummage their social profiles to find out.
• Did the piece perform strongly in one or two areas (Facebook, Twitter, comments) but not in any others? Figure out why.
• Did you share it on your social networks?
• Could you have promoted the piece more through paid social channels?
Content that is written by a recognized and authoritative, in Google’s eyes at least, author will often create better links and get more engagement than content written anonymously. Forget for a moment about the debatable value of Google authorship, even Google has removed it from search results while retaining it in social media. 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 piece of 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. Don’t have someone no one has ever heard of publish content and instantly hope that person is considered to be an expert. Becoming an authority takes time so it’s best to start with those already established
• Where possible, connect the article to the author’s G+ account using the rel+author attribute. Once again not as important for search listings now that Google has removed them but it still builds up the credibility and shares it with your content via the social channels.
• Encourage authors to promote themselves via social media and build their personal engagement levels. Leverage their audience as much as you possibly can. It shouldn’t be difficult to do as authors with authority like to show off their content by sharing with their audience.
4. Anchor Text Distribution
Keep anchor text branded where at all possible, and link to deep URLs where within context – as opposed to just trying to place links to top pages.
• Use a mixture of anchor text that are branded, brand + phrase and variations.
• Always make anchor text contextual, never link to transactional/commercial content unless you are talking specifically about it. Nothing turns off an audience faster than hoping to read more great content only to be taken somewhere where someone will ty to sell them something. Linking to studies and other pieces of 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. Unfortunately, many businesses are still tied to these practices of the past and less than reputable marketers still actively promote these damaging tactics. While Google may never know for sure if a link was built or natural, they have the data and the human analysts to back it up to understand enough signals to give them a pretty good idea 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. It’s written for a search engine not a person. Try reading some old school content and you will see what I mean.
• Try to avoid any of the following terms included in the post title, post URL, or on-page content: paid, guest, advertorial, sponsored, featured. Google is automatically suspicious of these terms so don’t make the mistake of using them even if innocently.
6. Link Out to Others, Not Just Yourself
A clear sign of link-building is that you only link to your brand. It makes sense. You want to build links and naturally you want all the links to point at your site. What you should be doing is sharing the link wealth and create a link profile that links to others as well as yourself. 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
If you have an architectural firm and you have links from the dating sector, it looks unnatural. Its like playing the game “What does not belong.” 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 and targeted audiences always respond better when the topic you are covering has some relevancy in their lives. I’m quite sure 90% of the people on Match.com don’t care about Italianate architecture when on the site. Use your head when it comes to topic relevancy and keep it relevant!
• Always establish the theme of the publisher and assess whether it is relevant to your site. If so, great and move forward. If not, move on.
• 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 other words, it may not relate directly but at the bare minimum where if someone sees your link it makes sense in their mind.
• In cases where there are multiple themes/categories within a site, make sure that the article has been placed in the most appropriate section. This happens quite often and it is best to work directly with the publisher on placing content in the right areas and then following up to make sure it has been placed as directed.
• Poor relevancy is usually shown by poor engagement. If articles posted on sites have low engagement levels which suggests that the topic wasn’t relevant enough.
8. Data-Driven Brand Assets
To make content PR newsworthy, you need data – lots of it. Where will you get it? Take your pick. Run surveys, dig deep into analytics, interview influencers, etc. There is an endless amount of ways to get data. Make your content research heavy. People love research and they especially love data visualization which is why infographics work so well for many brands in getting their message across. It is 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. As I said, data collection and organization takes time so if you are able to save the publisher the time, effort and money from doing it him/herself, you have an edge.
9. Local Link-Building
If you can have one great national idea or piece of content, think of how you can spin it into many local angles.
For example, with a real estate and property client we created a visualization of data on house prices vs. travel time vs. train fares to find the best/worst places to commute into Washington DC. This generated great local and national coverage, but then opened up lots of local PR, blogger, and social opportunities afterward.
10. Creativity Wins, But Failure Is Inevitable and Desired
You need to be creative and innovative to stand out from the crowd and win. But if you’re doing something for the first time or many not the first time, you’ve got to face up to the fact that it might not work. It happens. Even to seasoned marketers like myself. Sometimes it just does not work for whatever reason. No one can predict what is going to go viral before it goes viral – they key to all this is just make sure you learn from it and improve. You only truly fail when you fail to learn from failure.
If you just follow the tried and trusted approach that has worked for you in the past, you lose an element of creativity and innovativeness and end up following a templated process that will annoy your audience and make your brand seem robotic than humanistic. If instead you can provide something that no one has ever done before, and vanquish the fear of failure – the potential rewards are much bigger at the end.
11. Less Is More, Quality vs Quantity
The total number of links you have should no longer be your goal. It makes far more sense to focus activity on bigger projects that generate high quality but low numbers of links than vice-versa. As I always say, 10 good links are better than 1,000 bad ones and trust me when I say Google agrees with me.
• 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? You might be surprised how willing some of these publishers will be to help after all it helps their brand as well does it not?
• This is a longer term strategy but it is worth it – build that list of dream sites to get links and attention from and then keep working on it. It will take time but keep chipping away at it and it will be yours and the reward will be worth the effort.
• Leverage connections again – too often people look for one link from one domain and then move onto the next. This is a bad move. If you’ve found a great audience for your site, leverage it for as long as you can. If you go fishing and the fish start biting I doubt you are going to pick up and move to another fishing hole. Forget about SEO. If your content has value to an audience, why wouldn’t you keep providing them with what they want? 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.
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 and campaigns. If you can line up additional outreach and attention around the same theme, and let’s say you get 10-20 links on average per project – it makes more sense to put your efforts into promotion of a small number of bigger campaigns. They are worth their weight in SEO gold.
• Rather than just focusing on the end product (the links that point directly to you), think about the signals that natural content has. When your links have their own links you generate 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 as the original source. This is how a PR story would break and it’s how a natural link profile would often look so follow that pattern. Don’t be afraid to share the wealth.
13. Focus on Traffic, Not Links
Run social media promotion campaigns, use social advertising on Facebook and Twitter as well as content distribution channels such as Reddit- to build more human engagement around the content and think about how you can get this in front of a targeted audience. If people like it, Google is more likely to like it and reward it.
• 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. Learning What Content Ranks and Attracts Links
Learning is an important step with link-building as it is with all of marketing. Understanding what works best and what your competitors are doing well can prevent lost time on poor content and create better campaigns. Don’t reinvent the wheel when someone already has.
• Analyze what type and length of content is ranking. This will be important data for you to build a more effective campaign in the future.
• Tools like Majestic SEO and Spyfu can be used to find top content pages on a domain, both yours as well as 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, can become a link magnet over the long-term.
Of course, please keep in mind that any link-building guidelines need to be an evolving process – they are a living document and one that will never be completed as search engines continue to evolve and SEO/Content marketers evolve with them. I’d be interested in seeing what other people use as their own. Please let us know in the comments!