This post is one of a series on my content production system, developed over 10 years and designed to scale content end-to-end in 6 months as an acquisition channel.
Here are the other posts in the series:
- Why the winner takes all in Content Marketing
- What everyone gets wrong about Content Strategy
- Building Your Keyword Universe
- Minimum Viable Technical SEO Audit
- Recruiting good Freelance Writers
- How to write blog content at scale
- Growth engineering for SEO
- Link building for authority (this post)
- Content Repurposing for Social Promotion
Most content marketers spend all of their time creating new content. They post new articles on social media when they’re live, almost as an afterthought, then they wonder why 91% of indexed pages get no organic traffic from Google! Instead you should be spending 80% of your time promoting content, and only 20% writing it, as Derek Halpern recommends. If you want that content to be seen by anyone, it needs to rank on the first page of search results. As Brian Clark says “The Best Place To Hide A Dead Body Is The Second Page Of Google”. How do you rank on the first page of Google for a keyword?
Google’s success as a search engine was predicated on their patented PageRank algorithm. It works by counting the number and determining the quality of links to a page to estimate how authoritative the website is. It’s a popularity contest: websites that get lots of links from other websites (who themselves get lots of links) will be seen as more important, and rank higher on Google. It’s not the only algorithm that Google uses, but it’s obvious that links are still very important. By some measures your link profile contributes 15% to the rank you achieve.
As a rule of thumb, you should aim to get at least 1 link to each blog post you publish to put it ‘on the map’, and multiple authoritative links to any page you’re trying to rank for a competitive keyword. Links should be from a diverse range of sources: if they all come from the same website or type of website, that’s a sign to Google that you’re trying to game the system. The keywords used when someone links to you, the anchor text, are important too: they are a sign of what topics you’re relevant for. You want these to be natural too: using the same words again and again looks spammy.
So how do people actually build links? What link building tactics and strategies are available, and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses? I put them into three buckets:
- Mentions: Build a relationship with a writer and get linked to from their content.
- Guest Posts: Write content for a publisher and link back to your own product.
- Linkbait: Develop assets that attract a lot of high quality inbound links naturally.
They’re in order of ascending cost and risk, but also reward. Linkbait tactics are the most expensive and least likely to succeed, but when they do you can build an entire business off the back of one success. Alternatively mentions are relatively straightforward to get — it’s a numbers game — but the value of these links is usually relatively low or even negative, if the link is low quality. In the middle is guest posting, a technique that always works and almost anyone can do for a reasonable cost, with results that scale linearly with effort.
The quickest and easiest way to increase your authority is to contact people with higher authority websites than you, and convince them to link to you. At its worst this is what motivates a lot of cold email spam cluttering up every webmaster’s inbox. At its best you build genuine relationships with influential people in your industry, and they think of you whenever they publish something relevant. This is the category PR (Public Relations) falls under, although I won’t cover that in this post because it’s not something you can easily do yourself. Here are some of the tactics I’ve found to work in this space:
- Link Love: Partner up with non-competitive products in a similar space and exchange links.
- HARO: a platform called Help A Reporter Out where journalists look for experts to quote.
- Roundups: look for posts listing multiple competitors and email them to ask to be included.
- Brand Mentions: find places your brand has been mentioned without a link and contact them.
- Directories: get listed on various websites which list other websites for various reasons.
- Resource Pages: find pages that provide resources on related topics and email to get listed.
- Broken Links: find relevant links that are 404s and contact the author to ask them to swap it.
To execute on these tactics you likely need access to an SEO tool like Ahrefs or SEMRush. They will help you identify opportunities where websites are linking to your competitors but not to you. For example I can see who links to CXL.com but not vexpower.com in Ahrefs link intersection tool.
From there I can see what pages on CXL.com rank best, who links to those pages, and if any of those links are broken. SEO is unique in that it’s easy to reverse-engineer a competitor's strategy and figure out how to compete. Licenses for these tools aren’t cheap, but most SEO specialists will find themselves using it every day. Another way to find these opportunities is advanced search operators (thanks James Phoenix for sharing this technique). You search for your topic plus various keywords in order to find relevant resource pages, hubs or directories.
If you are using cold email outreach you will also need a tool to send the emails and schedule follow ups like Lemlist, but personally I’ve had better results going for warmer outreach from my own email, rather than cold emailing at scale. Quality beats quantity and you maximize your chances of building a relationship with someone important to the industry, while minimizing your chance of building too many low value or toxic links that actually hurt your ranking.
The tactic that almost everyone uses at scale is guest posting. This is what most SEO agencies, for example Skale (thanks Jake Stainer for contributing to this section!) and Growth Machine, will do for you if they offer link building. The trick is to build up a list of websites in your target niche that accept guest posts. You’d be surprised how many even premium publications accept external content: the economics of online publishing make it so they can’t always afford to pay writers, and so long as the post isn’t overly advertorial they’re happy for you to link back to your website.
I prefer to sort publications into tiers so we know what level we’re targeting, as a link from an authoritative website is worth 100 links from smaller publications. Usually the barrier to entry is higher the better the publication: they will insist on higher quality and it makes sense to craft the post you write for them in the house style, so it’s more likely to get approved by the editor. Usually it’s worth the extra effort, because readers will also expect that style and will be more receptive to your message also. Here is an example of tiers from my last company Ladder.io, a growth marketing agency.
- Tier 1: Mainstream publications that have high domain authority and broad reach..
Business Insider, Entrepreneur, Inc, Fast Company, Forbes, HBR, TechCrunch
- Tier 2: Popular industry publications with good topic relevance and authority.
Hubspot, Marketo, Salesforce, Adweek, Mashable, CMO.com, Reforge, CXL
- Tier 3: Smaller sites with low to medium authority but strong topic relevance..
IndieHackers, SmallBizTechnology, DuctTapeMarketing, GrowthMentor, Databox
Tier 1 websites are very hard to get into unless you know people, pay a PR person who knows people, or have something genuinely newsworthy happen, like a funding round or major news story. Tier 2 is more achievable, though you should expect to work hard to get your pitch approved, and produce a very high quality piece. The name of the game is respect: you should feel lucky to get an opportunity in one of these publications, and do your best to make the interaction valuable for the publisher in order to build an ongoing relationship. Getting a good article in one of these publications can literally put your website on the map in terms of ranking, and can bring direct traffic to your site and build awareness of your product as an added benefit.
Usually you want to start with Tier 3 websites because these are growing publications: they’re more keen for fresh content, and as they increase their own rank their links will be worth more to you. It also costs less in terms of time and effort to get published on these websites, though they do all have their own guidelines.
There are a lot of websites below Tier 3, and I haven’t bothered listing them because they’re usually fairly low quality. When you buy backlinks from a service like Legiit, or outsource backlink building to someone on Upwork or Fiverr, these low quality websites are usually what you get: and it can actually be harmful. I’d try to avoid these ‘black hat’ techniques. A good proxy for whether a backlink is valuable, is how much referral traffic the link sends you. If people aren’t clicking through from that link, there probably isn’t anyone actually reading the post, and that’s a sign of danger.
This is where investment in a good SEO tool can help, because you can check any potential websites you might want to get a link from before you go to the effort. This is especially important if you’re outsourcing the discovery of link opportunities to a freelancer: you want to make sure that they’re not bringing you garbage. Look for sites that have strong topical relevance (a link from a dentist’s website is just going to confuse Google if you sell shoes). The site should have a decent Domain Authority: they should have at least 100-200 domains linking to them or you don’t want a link from them. It’s also a good sign if they are growing their own organic traffic over time, because the link will appreciate in value.
This is my favorite strategy but it’s also the hardest to pull off. That’s what makes it valuable: because tactics for getting mentions are well publicized and anybody can do guest posting, those strategies are saturated. Better to go big with something unique that nobody else in the market has the resources, motivation and creativity to pull off. When it works, it works well. You can build an entire business off one success. When you do create something that taps into the zeitgeist and ‘goes viral’ the results can be felt immediately.
We were lucky enough to achieve this with our Hiring Freeze guide at Candor at the start of COVID, and got over 3,000 backlinks in the course of a few days. That individual page got hundreds of thousands of hits from social media, but more importantly, the increased authority from all of those links meant all of our content suddenly started ranking. We went from a few hundred visits from SEO per week to tens of thousands, a long lasting effect that continues to this day.
In some respects it’s hard to suggest tactics for this strategy, because by definition you’re trying to build something unique. However there are certain patterns in terms of what assets tend to attract links.
- Newsjacking: write about a topic before it trends to get quoted as a source.
- Coining: invent a new term and attract links from everyone who talks about it.
- Skyscraper Technique: find something with lots of links and make a better version.
- Templates / Tools: build small free products or templates that will get linked to.
- Datasets: build up a unique dataset and present it in a way to attract backlinks.
- Graphics: create a nicely designed visual chart or infographic for a specific topic.
- Programmatic SEO: build out lots of automated long tail pages to attract links.
Particularly if you’re a small brand, it can be hard to compete on the main terms in your industry. Big incumbents always have huge link profiles built up over years. So if you can’t beat them on old terms, you have to be first to new ones. If you get there first on a trending term you’ll earn links by being quoted as a source, and be able to rank on a SERP with far less competition. As a startup you can often be more flexible and move faster, so use that to your advantage. But how do you find terms with potential to blow up?
Find a topic where demand outpaces supply — where there’s a lot of ‘filler’ content being published because there’s lots of demand but no actual news. Think of if you tune into a football match 30 mins before it starts: they have to show you something relevant to the game, but it hasn’t started yet. You get random fan interviews, reporters on location, pundits talking about what will happen, etc. This is exactly the time to insert yourself in the conversation, before the action starts to happen. You can identify these scenarios by the following:
a) Increase in google searches / social activity (shows audience interest)
b) Increase in pages published (shows demand to write about topic)
c) Most content is 'filler' not 'breaking news' (opinion pieces, no new info)
d) There is soon to be news (the jobs report is coming out in 2 days)
- Breaking news
- Personal Interest
e) You have space to credibly play (journalists will believe you have the inside scoop)
One great example of this is from Nik Baron, formerly at Grammarly (who deserves the credit for this strategy). When interest in Donald Trump’s rise was at its highest and publications where desperate for any commentary on the unprecedented situation, Grammarly released some custom analysis that showed Trump fans had worse grammar: it was immediately covered by every major publication.
I had some of my own success with this technique in the niche world of marketing attribution. iOS14 had a huge impact on Facebook ads performance and everyone was wondering how Facebook would respond. I jumped on a niche webinar about their new marketing attribution tool, Robyn, and live tweeted it: getting over 800,000 impressions as people were highly interested in the moves Facebook was making. I then followed that up with a new course for Vexpower on how to use Facebook’s new tool, which to this day is our most popular course.
The difference between the right words and the right words can be enormous. Often the same story repositioned can find 1000x the traction. The key is to find a more tribal angle on a topic or shine a light on a taboo that everyone already thinks but isn't saying — for example:
a) A Taboo topic that people won't or can't talk to (diversity, political correctness, religion)
b) Can split the population by identity (location, politics, wealth, schools, companies)
c) Will confirm existing biases and social constructs (I knew it and this is proof)
d) Uses some unique inside information (data, survey, quotes, analysis, facts)
e) Spend time on the headline, making it easy to spread virally (emotion, clickbait)
The more cynical among you might look down on this type of spin, but it works. The way that we decide what to pay attention to is hardwired biologically and hasn’t changed in 10,000 years. We still care about what tribes we’re in, and share content that speaks to our identity. Some ‘memes’ get us going more than others. This type of memetic engineering can be used for good or evil, and sometimes the story can get away from you, so use with caution.
Distribution & Conversion
Once something is working organically, you want to throw gasoline on the fire. Push the story out to relevant publications in order to convert interest into column inches. It’s important that you move quickly and are respectful. It helps if you have already been building relationships with influential people or have a PR team in place to help you coordinate.:
a) Use tools like Cision, Meltwater, JustReachOut to build lists of journalists
b) Personalize outreach the top most relevant journalists on the list
c) Mass mail merge to the rest of the journalists on the list (in a semi-personal way)
d) Email capture and links on the website to capture interest and commercialize it
e) Choose the page you promote carefully, to maximize value of backlinks
These techniques require prescience and good PR-sense. You have to think about what story busy journalists and industry commentators are actually going to promote and link to. It can take several failed attempts to get this working, and it requires a huge investment in time. When it does work, get ready to drop everything and put your full attention to contributing to the momentum and making the most of the opportunity.
Build or Buy?
Most of these techniques require a sizable commitment in terms of budget. There’s often an exponential return: a slightly better design, or longer post, or bigger database could get 10x the links of something average. So the incentive is to massively over invest in production. However that can be scary because there’s a high risk it won’t pay off. You have to remember that’s precisely why this strategy works: the returns at the top are enormous, but nobody has the stomach to invest enough to get there.
Of course if you want to avoid the risk of sinking a lot of budget into something that doesn’t pay off, you can buy your way to success. Many failed startups or unmaintained side projects built up strong link profiles over time that they’re now doing nothing with. If you can purchase the assets from the founder for a few thousand dollars you can redirect those links to your website and improve your ranking overnight. If you’re really lucky you might find a lapsed domain the owner forgot to renew — register the domain quickly before anyone notices and you can pick up very high value links for next to nothing.
What should my link building strategy look like?
Even if you do nothing, you’ll still attract links naturally. This is the safest and least resource intensive way to do it. Write good content and good things happen. Most of the best writers on the web have never given a single thought to link building. Your default link building strategy should be to do nothing. Not until you have enough content on your site and are in a good cadence in terms of how often you publish high quality posts. However that’s also the slow way, and if you’re really depending on SEO as a growth channel for your business, you’re going to need to speed things up a bit.
I find it helps to approach link building like an investment portfolio. You don’t want all of your eggs in one basket, because that is risky and looks unnatural to Google. You also can’t easily know what’s going to work ahead of time, so it pays to experiment. Because of the relative cost and risk associated with each tactic, I’d usually recommend you only test one big Linkbait idea per quarter: then if something hits it makes sense to double down.
Guest posting is something that everyone should do on a weekly or at least monthly basis: get started early and you’ll be surprised how quickly the links pile up. Finally I find it easier to batch a bunch of mention tactics together into big projects: once one thing works try to find other similar opportunities and keep doing them until they’re exhausted. This is a numbers game so defining a good process that can work at large scale is useful in terms of making the economics work.
Whatever link building strategies you’re using, quality control should be your overriding concern. Remember that links will build naturally over time, and it’s better to not build a new link than to attract something spammy. It’s also useful to remember that you almost always make money from investments in link building, but you don’t control the timeline. Some links might take years to pay off, and sometimes a tactic pays off handsomely overnight. Generally speaking the bolder you can be, the bigger the reward.