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From “Zero to Hero”: Non-Spammy SEO Link Building Strategies for 2021

Jon Bennion

Jon Bennion | December 15, 2020 |

30 min read
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Every good SEO strategy starts with your own website. You create killer content optimized for SEO. You build content pillars and clusters with a thorough internal linking structure. 

And it works. The traffic starts to flow.

But then what? When you’ve optimized your on-page SEO, how do you continue to build your SEO to get higher search engine rankings, more traffic and ultimately more conversions, sales and leads?

The answer is SEO link building

SEO link building is the antidote to stagnant organic search traffic. It is effective, efficient and scalable. And the good news for you is that it’s relatively simple to earn links.

When you understand the premise of backlinking - and how to score links for your website from high authority referring domains - you can kick your low domain authority to the kerb. You can go from zero to hero, or hero to superhero in a matter of months.

No spam links or black hat tactics. Just quality links and advanced strategies that work.

In fact, in a Databox study of 80 SEO specialists, they listed external link building as the third most valuable SEO strategy behind content and keywords. The opportunity with building links is immense.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything there is to know about how to build links for SEO in 2021. From the best practice link building strategies that work… and the spammy tactics to avoid.

Most importantly, you’ll gain the knowledge you need for sustainable link building. The kind of link building that you can manage and maintain — to bring you consistent traffic while you sleep.

What is link building SEO?

Think about all of your SEO efforts to date. They’ve most likely been focussed on optimizing your own website.

This is on-page SEO. And it’s the base of a solid SEO strategy.

On-page SEO commonly involves optimizing your site for keywords, building a pool of quality content around pillars and clusters and managing the technical elements of your SEO such as page speed. If you do all these things you will start to see your website moving up the search results.

SEO isn’t a set and forget activity. Once it’s done you need to keep building.

But without looking at off-page SEO, and link building SEO in particular, you are limiting your success.

Link building is about leveraging the power of the world wide web beyond your own virtual doors to earn links, increase your traffic… and your revenue.

Why is link building so valuable?

It all comes down to a little thing called Google PageRank.

PageRank is as old as Google itself. In the early days of the Internet, while other search engines were focussed on the number of links a site or page had pointing to it in order to determine its value, Google added quality into the mix.

This is where Google PageRank comes in. It analyzes the quantity AND quality of inbound links to web pages to rank that website in the search engine results. The more relevant and high quality links you have to your website, the higher your PageRank... and the higher your website or the page will appear in the search results.

Image source: Ahrefs

Over the years PageRank has evolved and is now one of many hundreds of factors the Google algorithm uses to rank websites in the search results. 

Is link building still relevant for businesses in 2021? 

Link building is dead, right? Wrong!

Link building for SEO is still 100% a bona fide strategy for businesses to bring more traffic to their websites. 

I’m sorry to say, but anyone who tells you otherwise is not someone you should be taking SEO advice from.

According to a study by Backlinko, 94% of the world’s content has zero external links. And only 2.2% of all content generates backlinks from multiple sites. That is a lot of content missing out on the opportunity to grow their SEO.

Considering that content and links pointing to your site are the two most important Google ranking criteria, it’s certainly worth investing in. 

Link building strategies have changed over the past 20 odd years. In the early days, it was more about the number of links pointing to a site. The websites with the most backlinks won in the Google algorithm game.

Not anymore. 

Link building in 2021 is about quality over quantity. One quality backlink to a page is worth more than 100 spammy backlinks. In fact, spammy links will score you a Google penalty faster than you can say “does anyone have a copy of the webmaster guidelines?”

For those serious about optimizing their site to bring in more organic traffic, off-page SEO in the form of link building should be a central component of your strategy. Paired with the on-page optimizations you likely already have underway and you have the winning formula for SEO success.

What are the different link building techniques?

If you haven’t got the message already, not all backlinks are equal. And nor are the techniques used to build those links.

The search engine algorithm is always updating. It is constantly learning and adapting to meet the needs of searchers and better index the world’s online content. It’s a big job and Google does it well.

One other thing the Google algorithm does with each major update is to define what is acceptable and not acceptable for SEOs. And link building techniques are a part of this. These updates serve to stop questionable techniques by implementing penalties for techniques that contravene Google’s guidelines.

Black hat link building

Black hat link building tactics are bad. Don’t do them. Or you will risk a penalty from Google and that’s not something you want to be dealing with.

It may seem like a good idea to take advantage of search engine algorithm loopholes for your own gain, but it’s never a good idea. 

Especially when there are so many valuable, search engine approved techniques you can use instead. 

These unethical techniques include things like:

  • Setting up link farms to point a large number of links to a particular site or page.

  • Using the comments on third-party sites to essentially build spam links to a page.

  • Hacking into a site susceptibility in the security to insert hidden links.

  • Cloaking content on a page so search engines and website visitors see different content. 

These are not high-quality links. And Google knows it.

Link schemes, such as buying links, directly contravene the Google guidelines. Remember how the search engines favor quality over quantity? Tactics such as buying links are seen as an attempt to manipulate PageRank and they will incur a penalty. 

That’s not to say you can’t pay for sponsored posts, but any links within these posts should be marked as no-follow, which you’ll learn about later in this guide.

White hat link building 

White hat link building techniques on the other hand are ones that meet the search engine guidelines. They are ethical, sustainable and proven to work.

  • White hat techniques include:
  • Writing high-quality guest posts that include natural, editorial links with relevant anchor text.
  • Broken link building.
  • Link reclamation or finding unlinked brand mentions.
  • Building an engaged community of readers and followers who are genuinely interested in your content. 
  • Sharing your website with relevant third parties and building personal relationships with them.

The success of any white hat techniques comes down to quality content. You need quality content that people can read and engage with. Without quality content, you will find it hard to obtain the quality external links you need to boost your search engine rankings. 

At the end of the day, as long as you focus on high-quality inbound links, you will be on the right track.

How do I make SEO backlinks?

Good content is the cornerstone of quality SEO. As hard as you can try to optimize your page speed and other technical factors, if you don’t have good content, Google will know.

All the work you have done to create quality, SEO optimized content on your website is how you get natural, high-quality backlinks.

As anyone with any SEO knowledge knows, linking to quality, relevant content from web pages on your site is a good idea. Whether it is case studies, resource pages or a blog post, it helps the search engines to piece the puzzle together and it sends signals to Google and the other search engines that you think the content you’ve linked to is worthwhile.

In fact, it’s probably something you’ve already been doing on your own website.

This is you handing out backlinks.

Here is an example of a backlink from Likehack to Gary Vaynerchuk’s website. The anchor text they have used is the website URL which is then linked:

 

Image source: Lifehack
 

So in order to make SEO backlinks, you need to look at the situation in reverse. Think about the online publications, industry news sites and blogs in your niche and present them with high-quality content they can link to.

You’ll find more information on the how of doing this further in this guide. But for now, think about your link building strategy as simply getting links pointing to your website. It’s as simple as that.

Types of backlinks

I’ve said it already, but not all backlinks are equal. If there is one thing I want you to remember it is this. 

There is no simple formula you can follow because it is different for every niche and industry. Some niches may align much more closely with high ranking news sites so they can obtain a good link relatively easily. For others, it may be a slow burn to get there.

Let’s take a look at the differences between types of links.

Do-Follow vs No Follow

First up, you need to understand the difference between do-follow and no-follow links. Listen up, because this is important if you want to seriously tackle link building for SEO.

The aim of the link building game is to get do-follow links.

Do-follow links are the default. If you add a link to another site on your website and don’t add any particular code to it, it will be a do-follow link. 

A do-follow link is basically a nod from one website to another that tells the search engines to share the SEO goodness from the linker to the linkee. 

No-follow links on the other hand do not share “link juice”. To the end-user who clicks on the link, it is no different… but the links have the no-follow attribute (rel=”nofollow”) added to the code to tell the search engines not to follow the link.

This is what each link will look like in the code:

Image source: WP Beginner
 

You would add the no-follow attribute to links for a number of reasons. Firstly, if the link is sponsored, Google guidelines say that it must be no-follow. Websites will also often use no-follow links in blog comments and forums to prevent spam.

No-follow links aren’t bad. They can still bring referral traffic to your website and boost your backlink profile. They just won’t add any SEO value to your website in the eyes of the search engines.

Good vs Toxic 

There is another distinction between the types of links...that is good vs toxic backlinks.

Good links are the ones you want. Quality links come from referring domains that are high-quality, high-ranking sites and they link back to relevant content on your website.

The anchor text for a good link is a strong keyword that is related to the content being linked to. A link with anchor text like "Click here" will not get you the same results as an anchor text that uses a highly relevant keyword.

Toxic links, on the other hand, have the potential to do significant damage to your website SEO. Avoid these low-quality links at all costs.

A toxic backlink is often from a poor quality site. The content on the page is not related to yours. The anchor text for the link is not relevant. And often the site will already have a Google penalty against them.

Not only will you not get any traffic from toxic links, but the bad SEO will also flow through to you. You need to know that it’s much easier to build a healthy volume of good links than it is to undo the damage of even a single toxic link. 

Advanced SEO Link Building Strategies 

Now it’s time to jump into the practicalities of link building for SEO and the strategies you can use to build links in 2021.

These six strategies work. We use them with our clients to get phenomenal results.

Make no mistake, earning links takes time and hard work. It isn’t a 'set and forget' activity. It’s something you will revisit time and time again. And each time you come back to your link building campaign, you will see results. 

These are advanced strategies for businesses who already have a good grasp on SEO. You will need a website that has been optimized and is already performing well. Natural, quality backlinks will only come if you have great content and blog posts to link to.

Now, onto the strategies.

Strategy #1: Guest posting

Guest posting is arguably the easiest way to build links to your site. And the links you get are generally high quality and of high value to your overall SEO strategy.

Beyond SEO, writing for other websites also helps you reach new audiences that might not otherwise find you. You can gain new social media followers, enhance the credibility of your author bio and give your link profile a great boost. It’s a win/win.

So how do you go about guest blogging on high authority websites? 

You ask.

Reach out to website owners in your niche and offer to write a guest post. Some will have contributor guidelines, while others will not. If you can find guidelines, be sure to follow them for the best chance of your guest post being picked up.

 

Image source: HuffPost
 

If your search for guest posting guidelines isn't fruitful, contact the website owner/editor and start a conversation.

Some websites will not offer a do-follow link to your site for guest posts so be sure to check in advance. Natural editorial links to your site are more valuable than simply a link in your author bio so look for link opportunities in the guest post to link to related pieces of content on your website with relevant keywords and anchor text.

Strategy #2: Unlinked brand mentions

If half the work of building links was already done for you, would you not jump on the opportunity?

Depending on your brand, you could potentially have hundreds or thousands of unlinked brand mentions floating around the web. That is, websites where your brand name or product has been mentioned but there is no link through to your website. The anchor text is already there just waiting for a link.

As a link building tactic, unlinked brand mentions - otherwise known as link reclamation - are a huge opportunity. 

The website owner already obviously knows your brand… so it’s now just a matter of convincing them to highlight that anchor text and add a link to your site.

It does take a bit of digging to search for unlinked brand mentions but it is possible. It is possible to use the search engines to find unlinked brand mentions but it can be tedious and takes a lot of work. Alternatively, you can use a tool like Content Explorer by Ahrefs to find non-linking websites... and then reach out and ask them to consider adding a link to your site from their page.

Remember that not all links are equal. The search engine algorithms prioritise higher quality links first so you should do the same. Focus your efforts where you are likely to see the greatest return with higher authority sites.

Strategy #3: Get your site into roundups

A roundup is essentially a curated list of products/services/trends/content/ideas in a particular niche. 

Not only can you secure powerful links from being featured in roundups but you are also boosting your brand authority.

There are two ways to go about nabbing roundup features. The first is to find existing roundups where you and your brand/products/services/content would be a great fit. Then reach out to the author and let them know about you. Tell them you read their roundup and wanted to let them know about what you do as you think it would be a great fit.

The other way is to make sure you are getting in front of the right people for future roundups. If there is a high authority blogger or industry news site that publishes a regular roundup in your niche, send them your work to make it easy for them to link to you.

 
Image source: Forbes

 

Strategy #4: Broken link building

You likely already know from managing your own site that it is a challenge to keep on top of broken links. Links change often and not every webmaster is on the ball when it comes to adding redirections. The reality is that search engines like Google don't like sites that have lots of broken links.

This presents you with an opportunity. You know that the site owner is prepared to link to external websites. And you can help them by taking one broken link off their site while also getting the benefit of a powerful backlink to yours. 

Broken link building is a seriously underrated way to earn links.

Using a tool like the Check My Links Chrome extension you can browse content sites in your niche and find broken links.

If the anchor text for that broken link is of value to your website, you can recreate the content on your site and suggest it to the webmaster as an alternative to replace the broken link. If you already have a piece of content that is relevant to the anchor text on your site it’s an even easier process.

Strategy #5: Become a source

Have you ever wondered how your competitors manage to appear in the media all the time? The answer is likely simple - they’ve put themselves forward as a source to journalists and bloggers.

As with most other link building strategies, becoming a source has the dual benefit of increasing your brand authority as well as securing you a valuable backlink.

But how do you find media opportunities? It’s easy. Sign up to sites like Help A Reporter Out (HARO)

Image source: HARO

HARO is a free service that matches journalists and bloggers with sources - that’s you - seeking exposure. It's like a search engine for publicity opportunities. Journalists are time poor and often working to tight deadlines so this is a game changer. The more direct and refined you can make your pitch, the better your chance of being selected as a source.

For what can be just a five-minute interview with a journalist, you can earn yourself a backlink from some very high authority news sites.

Similar to guest posting, some sites will offer only no-follow links or sometimes no link at all so be sure to set expectations from the beginning.

Strategy #6: Data-driven studies and infographics 

In the age of fake news, people are looking for data-driven studies they can trust. That is particularly the case for busy and time-poor journalists, bloggers and editors. 

Even better if you can pair a data-driven study with an infographic. Visual content has huge appeal. You can quickly convey a strong message in a series of pictures and stats. And that works incredibly well for the speed at which people consume content online.

The easier you make it for someone to link to your content, the higher the likelihood they will link to your content. If you give them an interesting infographic backed by a set of well-researched data, you are boosting your chances of scoring a backlink.

Infographics, “why” posts and “what” posts actually receive 25.8% more external links than video posts or “how-to” posts.

Image source: Column Five Media

 

Take your SEO link building to the next level

At The Search Assembly, we work with our clients every day to increase their search engine rankings. We’re not talking minor increases here. The results we deliver are genuine, high-level results that drive leads, sales and revenue.

If you want to learn more about how we can do the same for you, click on the link below to request your FREE digital audit and six-month game plan. We’ll audit your current state in regards to SEO, your link profile and link building efforts to date, and give you a six-month multi-channel game plan to achieve online marketing success.

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