Backlinks are the nitrous of every successful SEO campaign.
This new guide will teach how to build backlinks in 2018. Every strategy you will read is battle tested.
Through hundreds of successful SEO campaigns, we now know what does and does NOT work.
Ready to get started? Let’s jump in.
- What are Backlinks?
- When to Build Backlinks
- 7 Backlink Quality Indicators
- Harmful Backlinks to Avoid
- How to Build “Foundational” Backlinks
- Power Backlinks
- Grey Hat Backlinks
- How to EARN Backlinks
- FAQ About Backlinks
What are Backlinks (and How Do They Work)?
A “backlink” is created when an external website links to yours. This why some people refer to them as “external backlinks” or “inbound links”.
Here’s how it looks in action:
These links are a large piece of the ranking puzzle.
But before we get into the heavy link building strategy…
You need to make sure that your site is ready for backlinks.
When to Build Backlinks
Many people dive into link acquisition before they’ve built a strong foundation. What you must realize is that a strong foundation (a well-optimized website) makes your link building more effective.
When your backlinks are more effective, you don’t need as many to achieve your desired result!
That ultimately saves you time and money.
So, here’s what you need to cover before jumping into link building:
1. Fix All Technical/UX Issues
Technical issues can hurt User Experience (UX) and UX is correlated to SEO performance (or lack of it).
View this as a foundational stage of the process.
That’s because if speed through this process, you backlinks won’t be as effective.
And what happens when your backlinks aren’t as effective?
You have to acquire more, which costs your company more money.
Here are some technical/UX issues you need to look for:
Sometimes the most obvious solutions are right in front of your face. Redirect chains are another simple problem that can boost your site’s authority once fixed.
This is what a redirect chain looks like:
Do you see the problem with this picture?
The problem is that “Page B” is acting as a buffer between “Page A” and the final destination “Page C”.
This technical issue is robbing “Page C” of authority.
To fix this you need to 301 redirect
“Page A” to “Page C” like so:
By fixing a redirect chain you will send authority/link equity directly to the page.
That is more effective than making the link equity pass through a buffer.
There’s some debate on whether or not PageRank passes through 302 redirects. For many years, SEOs (including myself) have always stated that you should change 302s to 301s. This is still my stance. However, he’s what Gary Illyes said about the topic: “30x redirects don’t lose PageRank anymore.”
Is Gary telling the truth? Probably.
But I still don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Out of the hundreds of SEO audits I’ve conducted, I’ve seen a few websites using 302s for their actual purpose (a temporary redirect).
In most cases 302s are nothing more than accidental.
With that said:
It’s my preference to change 302s to 301s if they aren’t being used for their actual purpose.
Reclaim Lost Link Juice (404 Link Reclamation)
404 link reclamation is at the top of the list because it is the easiest.
You can use Google Search Console to find 404s (Crawl > Crawl Errors > Not Found):
You can also use Screaming Frog to find 404 as well (Response Codes > Client Error – 4xx):
Then to see what 404 pages have backlinks, just use Ahrefs’ or Majestic’s bulk analysis tools.
I recommend doing both just in case you miss some links.
When you find pages with link equity, you must 301 redirect them to a relevant page on the site or to your homepage.
Fix Broken External Links
Every external link you place on your site leaks authority.
That’s why it’s important to audit your site (here’s an SEO audit checklist
) to find broken external links.
This applies to both external links in your content and in the comment section.
You can easily find these broken external links using Ahrefs.
Go to “Outgoing links” and click “Broken Links”.
You can use Screaming Frog SEO Spider
to find most of these issues such 302 redirects, redirect chains, 404 errors, canonical errors, duplicate META data and incorrect uses of directives.
2. Develop a Strong Site Architecture
Developing an intelligent site architecture is the single best way to get the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to link building.
My favorite site architecture strategy is to use a reverse silo.
Instead of trying to acquire backlinks to non-linkable pages (homepages, category pages, product pages, etc), the reverse silo is built to acquire backlinks to content-rich pages.
These may be blog posts or individual information-driven pages.
Here’s how it works:
This is a more effective approach for link acquisition because people are much more willing to link to valuable information than sales-driven pages.
With that said:
The ultimate goal of the reverse silo is to distribute link authority (PageRank) from your content assets to your sales-driven pages (via internal linking).
I believe this content-centric approach is the safest way to grow your site’s authority.
Bringing me to the next point:
3. Create Linkable Assets
Every effective link building campaign should begin with creating linkable assets.
First, what is a linkable asset?
A linkable asset is usually a blog post or page that is informationally-driven.
For example, this blog post you’re currently reading is a linkable asset. It’s designed to educate and add value to my industry.
Not only is it easier to acquire backlinks to a valuable content asset, but it’s much more scalable in the long run.
That’s because you can continue to earn new backlinks overtime without much additional effort. That is, if you created the content the right way.
At this stage, your website is on a strong foundation so it’s time to start building backlinks, right?
Wait a second.
You need to have a clear understanding of what a “quality” link opportunity looks like before you dive in.
This will help:
7 Backlink Quality Indicators
Not all backlinks are created equally and that’s why it’s critical that you know what a good backlink look like. Here are some guidelines to follow:
Your #1 link building objective should be to get backlinks on websites that are relevant to yours.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what a former member of Google’s search quality team, Andre Weyher, said back in 2012:
Not only this but take PR for example, getting a link from a high PR page used to always be valuable, today it’s more the relevance of the site’s theme in regards to yours, relevance is the new PR. – Andre Weyher
This quote is stating the obvious:
Your link acquisition efforts should begin with the most relevant opportunities.
But there’s a problem with this approach:
Getting 100% exact relevancy for every single link is unrealistic.
That’s why I develop The Relevancy Pyramid framework for prioritizing your link opportunities.
The Relevancy Pyramid
Here’s a visual representation:
The idea is quite simple.
There is a limited supply of 100% relevant link opportunities. However, as you broaden your research, there will be many more opportunities to go after.
The key is prioritize opportunities at the top of the pyramid (since they’re the most relevant) and work your way down the pyramid (towards less relevant opportunities).
Let me show you how it would work with a more practical example.
I’m going to show you how I would prioritize opportunities for a supplement company.
Tier One: 100% Relevancy
I will designate a “1” to any opportunities that are 100% relevant to the supplement company. An example of 100% relevancy would be a website that reviews supplements. Or, a website that focuses on a specific supplement that the client offers like creatine.
As you can imagine, 100% relevant opportunities are few and far between. This is especially true in the “supplement” industry. That’s because supplement companies create micro supplement sites to persuade you. So the chances of landing a link are low.
Tier Two: 75% Relevancy
All opportunities that are 75% relevant get a “2” designation. On this tier you would want to focus on “body building” opportunities.
Tier Three: 50% Relevancy
On tier three, you would focus on all “fitness” opportunities and assign a “3” to them.
The fitness space has unlimited opportunities.
First, you would focus on pure “fitness” blogs. After that, you could move onto any type of sports, CrossFit, or runner blogs.
It would likely take a year to tap into all the opportunities within this relevancy tier.
Tier Four: 25% Relevancy
On tier four, you would focus on “health” opportunities and assign a “4” to them.
There are countless websites about “health” in general. But, you can also tap into nutrition, elderly health, women’s health, and men’s health blogs.
Tier Five: 0% Relevancy
On tier five, you would focus on more “general” opportunities.
For example, if I link to my wife’s guide about fall outfits
, it’s probably not going to be as effective a “Tier 1” opportunity. That’s because SEO and fashion aren’t relevant to each other. But, that doesn’t mean the link I injected won’t work.
We classify “general” (Tier 5) opportunities as authoritative news sites, colleges, and unrelated, but high-quality blogs.
You would assign a “5” to these opportunities.
News sites such as Huffington Post, Fox, CNN, or Yahoo would be targets on this tier.
You are likely wondering what “unrelated, but high-quality blogs” are…
Let me explain.
You would want to ask yourself:
Does the supplement company have a CEO who would like to share success secrets?
If the answer is “Yes”, then focus on entrepreneur, business, small business, sales, marketing, and Internet marketing blogs.
You would also want to consider productivity or self improvement blogs. That’s because both topics could incorporate supplements in one way or another.
Now that you understand the Relevancy Pyramid model, here’s how it would actually look in practice:
I wouldn’t normally color code, but I wanted you to see the different tiers.
The cool thing about this process is that you can outsource the entire thing.
So, what I just showed you is how I would leverage the concept of a Relevancy Pyramid for a national SEO campaign.
Now let me show you how you can use this technique on the local level to prioritize link opportunities.
Local Relevancy Pyramid
Geo-targeted backlinks are the Creme de la creme of local SEO. That’s why you must prioritize these opportunities in the Pyramid.
Here’s how our local Relevancy Pyramid looks:
For this example, I will use a Chicago limo company.
Tier One: 100% Geo-Targeted and Niche Relevant
Your most prized prospects will be assigned here. That’s because they must be both niche-relevant and geo-targeted relevant.
These are rare, but valuable.
An example would be a Chicago limo directory.
Tier Two: 100% Niche Relevant
Tier Two and Tier Three are interchangeable, but we like to focus on niche relevant links first.
Limos blogs, limo directories, and limo associations would fall under this category.
Tier Three: 100% Geo-Targeted
On Tier Three you would focus your efforts on Chicago-targeted opportunities.
Chicago directories and Chicago blogs are all fair game here.
Tier Four: 50% Niche Relevant
At this stage you would focus your efforts on related niches. Wedding blogs and wedding directories would fit into this category.
Tier Five: 25% Niche Relevant
On Tier Five you would focus on travel blogs, transportation blogs, and even dating blogs.
Here’s how the local Relevancy Pyramid would look in practice:
I think you get it:
Link relevancy is super important, but how do you know if an opportunity is relevant?
You want to examine:
- The general content “theme” of the linking domain. Is it relevant to yours?
- The relevancy of the backlinks hitting the domain. The website linking to their website relevant to yours?
The stronger the site, the better the results.
Since Google doesn’t update PageRank anymore, you have to rely on third party metrics.
None of these third party tools are perfect, but they will do the job.
I recommend you analyze opportunities using all available options.
The best link analysis tools are:
3. Link Quality
Third party metrics such as Domain Rating (Ahrefs), Trust Flow (Majestic), and Domain Authority (Moz) can all be manipulated.
So, although a website can appear to be “authoritative” on the surface, it be outright dangerous when you dig deeper.
All the tools I mentioned above will do the job.
Use these same standards I’ve outlined in this section to determine whether your link opportunity’s link profile is high-quality or not.
If you approach link acquisition with the intention of driving traffic to your website, it changes your entire mindset.
Your goal should be to get backlinks on website with real traffic.
This doesn’t mean you’ll get loads of referral traffic, but it’s a good standard to have.
Since you will never know the exact traffic data of a site without getting in their analytics, you will need to use SEM Rush
5. Editorial Standards
Why are diamonds valuable? Because they’re difficult to get. That’s how you need to approach your link building. The harder it is to land a backlink, the more valuable it probably is.
On the other hand:
The easier a backlink is to get, the less valuable it is.
Focus on getting backlinks on websites that have editorial standards.
6. Outbound Link Quality
Websites with strong editorial guidelines will likely only link out to quality resources. You want your link to “live” around other quality outbound links.
Examine every prospective website and ask:
- What are they linking out to?
- Are the outbound links relevant?
- Are the outbound links going to respected, trusted sites?
- Do the outbound links look natural or do they look like paid links?
This is by far the most obvious point, but the target website needs to be indexed in Google. If the site isn’t indexed, then your backlinks will be worthless.
Just go to Google and search “site:example.com”. If they don’t show up, avoid the website.
You now know what a squeaky clean link profile looks like.
But now let me show you the backlinks you need to avoid.
Harmful Backlinks to AVOID
There are certain backlinks that should never touch your site.
If you decide to use these backlinks, just know that your risk for a penalty is much greater.
I’ve seen websites get penalties for using these backlinks.
I’m telling you that because I don’t want you to think I’m guessing.
It is a FACT that these backlinks can land you a manual or algorithmic penalty.
(Almost) Everything That’s Irrelevant
Your tier one should be a wall of relevancy surrounding your site. I said “almost” every link should be relevant because of the Relevancy Pyramid principle I outlined above.
You can go on almost any SEO forum and buy backlinks on public networks. These networks will often advertise their service as “private blog networks”. But that’s a lie.
Once you are advertising a network, it is no longer private.
Throughout Google’s short history, it has gone out of its way to smash public networks
. After that, they go out and destroy every website that is using these networks.
It’s easy for Google to spot these networks because:
A) there are an excessive amount of outbound links (typically 25-50+) on the homepage: homepages on REAL websites don’t have a ridiculous amount of outbound links on the homepage.
B) the outbound links are completely irrelevant to each other: there will be links going to gambling sites, SEO sites, fitness sites, etc. It doesn’t make any sense.
C) the content for each post is thin (only 250-300 words): Google’s Panda algorithm hates thin content.
D) you can run, but you can’t hide: some networks will attempt to block Ahrefs and Majestic crawlers, but its actually a footprint. On the other hand, networks that don’t block crawlers will likely get reported to Google because of an angry competitor. It’s a lose-lose situation.
These are some of the cheapest backlinks you can buy. They are also the perfect recipe for landing a penalty.
Large amounts of outbound links + irrelevant links + outbound links going to “bad neighborhoods” (gambling, pharma, porn, etc.) = a toxic backlink
Remember backlink quality indicator #6?
You don’t want your link to live in this environment.
I’ll admit that sidebar and footer backlinks can work, but they’re also risky.
Vendors that sell these high authority backlinks are also selling them to other websites. Most of these website will be irrelevant to yours. That’s because these vendors rarely turn down money.
As a reminder:
You don’t want your link to live with irrelevant or “bad neighborhood” links.
One more important note about sidebar/footer backlinks:
These links are almost always site-wide links.
This can destroy your site if you are using a keyword-rich anchor text.
I know web designers, marketing companies, and web hosting companies love footer backlinks.
So, if you do decide to use them, I recommend you use branded anchor text.
There is one exception to this rule:
If you can manipulate the code so that your link only shows on the homepage (where most of a site authority resides).
As a general rule of thumb, you should avoid automated link building tools on tier one.
Some of these softwares include GSA, Ultimate Demon, and SENuke.
These softwares leverage spammed platforms and will likely land your site a penalty.
Now that you know what links to avoid like the plague, here are foundational backlinks you should build:
How to Build “Foundational” Backlinks
“Foundational” backlinks are what every normal website should have.
They will create a layer of trust around your site.
That’s because you will be using nothing but unoptimized, branded backlinks from authority sites.
We use this exact approach with every client we take on and it works extremely well.
You should only use naked link or branded anchors for foundational backlinks.
The first thing you need to do is secure all your social media properties.
At the very minimum, your business should have:
You don’t have to actively market on these platforms, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
For example, for Gotch SEO, my social media manager decided that Facebook was our best social media platform based on referral traffic and engagement.
That’s why we are “all-in” on Facebook and not as active on the other platforms.
Choose what platforms work best for your business.
At the minimum, populate these accounts and share some content, so that you at least have a base.
Google values business listings so much that it is apart of the local search algorithm.
This should be more than enough for you to use them for ANY SEO campaign.
The cool part about listings is that about 50% of them give you a Follow, unoptimized link.
Business citations are a perfect way to build a foundation of trust around your site.
Remember earlier when I said that not all backlinks hitting your site need to be 100% relevant?
I was referring to business listings and social media profiles.
Google trusts these platforms and is well aware that all types of businesses will be using them.
In a sense, they get a pass for not being relevant.
While most directories are pretty much worthless, there are some diamonds in the rough.
Niche-targeted directories offer both a relevant and Follow link.
As you know, backlinks with both of these characteristics are hard to come by.
Use these search strings in Google to find niche directories:
- NICHE + Directory (Example: “fitness + directory”)
- NICHE directories
- NICHE + “submit site”
Geo-targeted directories are a must-have link source for local businesses.
Here are some search strings you can use to find geo-targeted directories:
- city + directory
- directory + city
- submit my site + city
- niche + city + directory
- city + directories
I’m always amazed why so many SEOs skip out on niche relevant blog comments. Too many SEOs neglect them because of the dreaded “NoFollow” tag.
I highly recommend you don’t neglect them.
My agency uses niche relevant blog comments to:
- A) create a layer of relevancy around our client’s site
- B) improve to the ratio of Follow and NoFollow backlinks
- C) diversify our anchors in a meaningful way
- D) sometimes get small amounts of referral traffic
This one comment has sent my site 143 visitors since:
- E) build a relationship with the blogger that you could leverage for backlinks in the future.
Point “D” is the most important and where most SEOs mess up.
Don’t go to a top blog and write a “me too” comment or something general/useless.
This doesn’t build relationships.
You have to contribute to the blog in a meaningful way.
You have to ADD VALUE.
This doesn’t mean you need to write a five paragraph essay.
In fact, I advise against that.
Focus on one point and leave a concise, well-thought out comment.
Niche Relevant Forum Backlinks
Participating on industry forums is an excellent way to build brand recognition.
And if you do it right, you will drive some relevant referral traffic to your website.
Here is the traffic the BlackHatWorld.com has sent my site since 2014:
This is referral traffic coming from 18 different threads in the forum.
Forum members have linked to my content, but it wouldn’t be hard to orchestrate it if you are creative.
There aren’t many forums that allow signature backlinks, but many still allow profile backlinks. These profile backlinks are valuable because they are relevant and Follow in most cases.
To get the most out of your forum profile backlinks, I’m going to show you some quick techniques.
1. Prospect for relevant forums
Use the following search strings in Google to find forums:
- forum + NICHE
- NICHE + forum
2. Take time to fill out your profile
Since your link will likely be a naked link, you need to leverage co-occurrence.
Co-occurrence is when your website’s target keyword phrase is near to your link.
Just write a legitimate profile description and make sure to toss in your main keyword.
3. Understand the forum “personality” / etiquette
Every forum is different and you need to learn how each operates.
Some tolerate a little self-promotion while others will ban you for it.
Scan through the forum and see if members are sharing links in threads.
4. Increase your post count & start adding friends
The more posts/friends you have, the more trust you build on the forum. Also, more connections send more internal links
back to your profile page.
This will slowly build the authority of your profile page.
5. Start a thread
Starting well-thought-out threads is a great way to build credibility on the forum.
Okay, now you might be asking what’s the point of doing all this?
The goal is to increase the amount of internal links hitting your profile page.
This leverages the forums authority. As a result it will increase the authority of your profile page hosting your link.
The second goal of all this work is so you can become a part of the forum community and so that members trust you more.
If you have a good reputation on the forum, you can share your content without getting flamed or banned.
You now know what it takes to build a solid foundation of backlinks. Now it’s time to get into what I like to call “Power” backlinks.
“Power” backlinks will accelerate your results because:
A) they are the most relevant and
B) they are the most authoritative
As hard as it is to produce quality content, there is no better way to drive high authority backlinks to a website.
There are only three things you have to do with a content-driven approach:
- Find the right keywords to target
- Create a great piece of content around that keyword
- Promote the content (social and backlinks)
When you create quality content, you are creating ASSETS for your business.
No matter what Google does, it can never take away your content.
You need to approach link building with a long-term mindset in 2018 and beyond.
I use the investing analogy pretty often, but it’s true for SEO.
There is a compound effect of producing and promoting content on a consistent basis.
Keep in mind:
The following tactics are effective without content.
But you will get even better results if you build links to strong content assets.
For a link to be “editorial” you can’t have access to the site and your link must pass editorial review. Google values editorial backlinks more than any other type of link.
Sadly, getting these high authority backlinks can be challenging.
First, you have to build relationships with bloggers in your industry. Second, you likely need to produce quality content to get natural backlinks.
My agency has acquired thousands of high-quality editorial backlinks at this point. We can get these high authority backlinks because we have built relationships and have the connections.
Niche Relevant Guest Posts
Guest posts are effective in two ways.
- First, if you contribute lots of value, it will build your authority in the space.
- Second, your guest post can send relevant referral traffic to your website.
Keep in mind that Google frowns upon spammy guest posting. That means you need to focus your efforts on producing a valuable guest post. If you give value, then there is nothing wrong with injecting backlinks to your website.
To get the most out of your guest posts, you need to get contextual links. Contextual links are far more powerful than author byline links.
Here are some search queries to find opportunities:
NICHE + “guest post”
NICHE + “contribute to”
NICHE + “write for us”
NICHE + “contributors”
NICHE + “guest writer”
NICHE + “guest post guidelines”
The Merger Technique
The Merger Technique
is the process of finding a relevant expired domain and 301 redirecting it to your site.
The concept is simple:
You just acquired a relevant business and want to redirect to your mother company.
The key is for the expired domain to be 100% relevant.
These domains are harder to come by, but it is well worth it when you find one.
This is an oldie, but a goodie.
Although SEO’s have abused this strategy, there are still some diamonds in the rough.
Once you find the pages, it’s best to see if there are any broken links on the page.
You can use this as leverage when reaching out.
If there are no broken links, then you will need a strong content asset.
Otherwise, you’ll likely get denied.
The White Alternative to PBNs
Instead of buying an expired domain and rebuilding it, you are going to:
- find an expired domain
- scrape its backlinks
- then reach out and let the linkers know they are linking to a dead resource
If the expired domain is relevant, you can ask the linker to replace the dead link with your site.
To improve your success rate, suggest 2-3 quality resources (including yours).
You can also recreate the original content if it’s relevant. This is obvious, but the content must better than the original.
Reach out and let the linker know about the new, revised piece of content.
This strategy requires more time and effort, but you get more link placements.
Grey Hat Backlinks
I stay away from grey hat techniques at this point, but I did live in this world for a long time.
NOTE: if you take the grey hat route, you are increasing the likelihood of getting a penalty.
None of these tactics are safe and I have seen websites get manual penalties using each of them.
If there is so much risk, then why am I showing you?
The reason is because many of these techniques work well.
These techniques are best for people:
- Who have a high risk tolerance
- Who want to rank without creating great content
- Who don’t care if their site gets penalized
If you have a low risk tolerance then you have two options:
A) avoid these backlinks altogether or B) use them on tier two to boost your tier one backlinks.
Leverage Relevant Expired Domains
If you are going to create a PBN, then you might as well do it right.
Don’t just buy any expired domain.
Try to find domains that have relevant Topical Trust Flow Topics to your niche.
This won’t always be possible, but it’s worth the patience.
Getting a link from one relevant domain is more powerful than several irrelevant domains.
Here are my favorite tools for finding expired domains: