The Cautious Person’s Guide To Link Building

by Pam Neely last updated on

Links are one of the most fundamental elements of search engine optimization. They’re right up there with content in terms of how important they are. But unfortunately, there’s still some confusion about the difference between good links and bad links.

Even those terms – “good links” and “bad links” – aren’t helpful. Links typically aren’t that black and white. It’s better to think of them on a spectrum of “good links” on one side and “bad links” on the other side, with all your possible links spread out across the scale between the two.

What determines the quality of links is complex. But based on ranking signals reports, it roughly works out to these factors:

The Domain Authority of the page (not the site) the link to your site appears on.

Domain Authority is Moz’s measurement of how influential a page is. This is the pretty much the agreed-upon measurement for how to rank sites. You’ll see it mentioned everywhere from Search Engine Watch to Stone Temple Consulting’s blog. It’s replaced PageRank (years ago) as a way to measure a site’s – or a link’s importance.

How relevant the page where the link appears is to your site’s topic.

This is a little fuzzier. Relevancy is not an essential requirement for a valuable link, but it definitely helps. Whether relevancy is decided based on site level or page level is less clear, but when in doubt, look to what the page is about. Even having a few related words around your link can help.

The anchor text of the link.

This is the underlined part of the link. It matters which words make up the anchor text. That said, a lot of the concern about Penguin was that website owners had over-optimized their anchor text. Because of that, people are less obsessed with getting their keywords into the anchor text than they used to be.

Whether the link is “follow” or “no follow”.

This refers to the HTML code that creates the link. If a webmaster wants to link to a site but doesn’t want to pass much “link juice” (aka page authority) to that site, they’ll add a no-follow tag to the link. This greatly reduces how much benefit the receiving site owner gets for the link.

Wherever possible, you want all the links pointing to your site to be full strength links. No follow links won’t help you nearly as much, though there is evidence that even no follow links do pass some page authority to the sites they link to.

How old the link is.

This is less of a factor, but generally, the older a link is, the better. What really matters is something called “link velocity” – that’s how many links your site gets over a period of time.

Better to have a steady build of quality links than have thousands of new links show up overnight. Of course, if you get a PR windfall, that’s exactly what will happen, which is why some SEO dismiss concerns about getting too many links too fast.

What’s does that mean?

So those are the basic characteristics of good (or bad) links. Just knowing those factors will help you see why some links are very good, and others aren’t so good. It may also help you not get caught up in the fear about link building that I’ve heard some business owners express.

I worry that some small business owners got particularly stung by the Penguin updates because they believed that all links were created equal. They aren’t. But because the owners did believe that, and because there were some shady SEOs selling cheap link building packages, a lot of low-quality links got built.

What’s a low-quality link? Well, to pull from the terms above, it’s any link that comes from a low-authority site (or even worse, a site that Google considers to come from a “bad neighborhood”). The worst types of low-quality links are also often irrelevant to the sites they point to. The cheap directory sites that used to offer free links are an example of this.

Another sign of a bad link is if it’s from a site known to sell links (which is a big no-no in Google’s eyes). Those type of sites typically have a lot of common links. In the trade, they’re called link farms. Google is constantly checking sites to try to find these links farms, aka “bad neighborhoods”.

So what’s a site owner to do? Never buy a link? Eh – some people break that rule successfully, but if I had to give you a yes or no answer, yes would be closer to the truth.

To give you a better idea of which links are completely white hat and safe to build, and which ones are riskier, here’s a list of five types of links that will not get you in trouble, and that will also make a difference for your site.

Just remember: SEO is not a quick fix. First-rate search engine optimization takes years of work. It’s not for the impatient. Or for people who are constantly looking for a way to beat the system.

If you can squash the urge to con the system, and you want to build long-term quality links the smart way, any of these tactics will do. They’re all safe, they work, and they won’t force you back to the link disavow tool the next time Google rolls out an update.

1) Build links through great content.

The classic way to get links is to earn them. That means creating awesome blog posts, valuable resources, terrific quizzes, cool interactive content – you name it.

Building links via content came in as the most-often used link building technique among SEOs in Moz’s 2016 State of Link Building Survey. It also came in first as the most effective link building technique.


Which link building tactics do you use?

Which link building tactics do you feel are the most effective?


While it’s helpful to know that content is the best way to get links, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Which types of content, for instance? And is the success of this link building tactic reliant on promoting that content, or do you just wait and let people find your amazing free resources?

Well, in terms of which types of content works best, guest posting may not be the best way to build links, but it is reliable. It’s just that getting one link in exchange for writing an entire blog post (and getting it accepted) is a lot of work. It’s not the most scalable strategy around. But getting about 10-15 guest posts placed on major sites will definitely help your search rankings.

It’s also a totally safe, 100% white-hat technique that is pretty much guaranteed to never harm your site. Just be sure to pick high-authority sites. If you pick trashy sites to guest blog for, it might come back to bite you.

Another way to get more links is to create a resource that’s specifically designed to attract the attention of the sites you want links from. For a real-life case study of this, see Moz’s case study, “How We Gained More than 100 Links for a Travel Website via Content Marketing”. It’s a great example of building content from the ground up as link bait. It’s also an amazing example of strategic promotion, done to such an extent that some commentators called it public relations work, not content marketing.

The promotion part of building links with content cannot to overstatedd. If your promotion stinks, even a great piece of content may never get the links it deserves. And the key to that promotion? According to the likes of Brian Dean and Neil Patel, it’s writing outreach emails to site owners. Emails that read something like this:


Images as linkbait

One last thought about getting links through content. I’ve recently gotten links on Neil Patel’s blog and from Blogging Wizard simple by using extra-good images and examples in my posts. So don’t get completely caught up in the text part of your content – often it’s the images that get shared.

The CoSchedule blog does a particularly nice job of making super-shareable, high-quality images. Like this:


2) Flesh out your social media profiles.

These are much easier links to get than the ones garnered through content. So make sure every one of your social media profiles is filled out – and includes a link to your site.

Don’t forget major local directory and review sites like Google Local, Yelp and others. And make sure to add a Business Page to your LinkedIn account. That’s just one more way to add legitimate links.

3) Practice the “moving man” technique for broken links on super high-quality sites.

This is an old technique. Basically, you just find instances of out-of-date links that are broken. Then you email the webmaster to notify them about the broken link, and you suggest one of your pages as a replacement. This works for links from anywhere on a site (blog posts, recommended companies, etc), but it’s particularly effective for resource lists.

So long as you only use this for super-high quality sites that are directly related to your site’s topic, I doubt there will ever be a problem. Watch Brian’s video to see exactly how to implement this technique:

4) Public relations outreach efforts.

The line between search engine optimization and public relations is blurring. What was previously considered “just link building” is now being seen as the domain of public relations companies – the same people who have been getting stories about companies placed in media outlets for years.

Trouble is, public relations can be really expensive. Some firms charge $20,000-$30,000 a month. But if you can build some PR skills, you’ve got a shot at doing some PR for yourself.

Key skills are:

  • Steadily building relationships with journalists or bloggers who cover your industry
  • Understanding what they’re interested in
  • Learning how to describe a change or event for your business in a way that gets their attention
  • Lots and lots of persistence.

Neil Patel has written a specific guide for how to do this for freelance bloggers. It’s similar to what you’ll need to do to partner with journalists at larger media outlets.

5) Links from industry associations.

Remember how I said it’s usually not a good idea to buy links? Well, this is the exception. After doing over a dozen link analyses for local businesses, it became abundantly clear which types of links mattered most: The ones from their local Chamber of Commerce.

Of course, getting links like this is expensive. Like $400 a year or more. But if your company has budget, it’s worth the investment. Especially given that membership benefits in most associations goes way beyond just adding your link to their site.


Those are just five ways to safely build links. There are many more, but even if you just focus on these techniques, you’ll be busy for a long time to come. Link building takes up a lot of time!

Back to you

What other link building tactics are you using? How are they working? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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