Link building: get back to the fundamentals
I’m not sure I can remember the last time I saw a conference presentation that talked about the importance of understanding link building for SEO in the classic sense.
By classic, I mean prospecting for links on relevant sites, performing outreach, relationship building through good communication and getting your site added as a link through the power of communication and negotiation alone.
I suppose this topic gets limited time at conferences because it’s considered a bit boring.
But look at the link profiles of the competitors in your industry and the majority of their rankings probably aren’t propped up by online news sites.
Who wants to hear about outreach to site owners with knitting resources, or mortgage advice, or guidance for people interested into getting into dog breeding or people who want to learn Yoga? How about people who want to run fundraisers for charities and people who want to plant gardens for insects?
I think we lose something for not talking about this stuff, because our universe isn’t all big PR, all the time.
So today I’m writing a gentle reminder about the importance of understanding fundamental link building.
Have a link intersect domains list
There will always be a common pool of relevant domains that link to two or three of your competition.
This is an Ahrefs intersect report on linking sites to two competing supplement websites.
Now, I’m not sold on some of these links. I’d ignore the slightly iffy networks of local news sites and links from premium WordPress themes and try to dig out the genuinely authentic stuff: a forum offering advice on alcoholism, a global diabetes community, a society for people with Pernicious Anemia and so on and so forth.
So the trick is to pick out the genuine stuff and to put time into understanding why and how those sites are linking out. Gathering intel like this will be extremely useful for your prospecting and outreach phases.
A bit of prospecting and outreach goes a long way
In this vertical, the highest ranking domains are propped up by forum discussions, reviews and recommendations, resources, links pages and industry press. Link building on this new domain started in earnest a few months ago.
Not one big PR link. It’s all link building at its simplest:
- Spend time prospecting for opportunities by identifying the types of links in a vertical
- Augment your data by performing link intersect and gap analyses on the dominant sites in the vertical
- Document the link target domain, target page and make a comment on where and how your site would fit in, should they link to you
- Analyse whether any of the link types are scaleable and expand as appropriate (is this a repeatable phenomenon?)
- Find the correct contact details for the site owners
- Find the right way to pitch yourself and your content
- Follow up, follow up and even follow up again.
But most importantly: Build an understanding of what linking sites prop up your vertical in the search results.
I’ve found working as part of a two-person team on link building works really well. One collects the data, the other augments the data where necessary and crafts the outreach emails.
As a pair you mutually review and improve the outreach and evolve your tactics as you learn more about the outreach targets and potential link types.
Link building strategy: what are your assets?
Most of the time, you need something to promote. Not always, but it helps.
In this post about Facebook Lead ads, I alluded to the idea that it’s OK to develop your content before you start thinking about link building. In that scenario we used paid media to get the initial momentum built through a mailing list. We only started to think about promoting the site and its content organically much, much later down the line.
There’s a bit of a ‘which came first’ situation here, though. On the one hand, you need content to promote but you might not know what types of content will work until you’ve had a good look at what earns links in that space.
In the very early days of your site and its content development, Reddit can be an extraordinary source of ideas and a good validator for the ones you’ve come up with.
With Reddit and forums specific to your vertical, it’s OK to ask for feedback via your post. We’ll get to that in a bit more detail later.
But even if you have very little to work with, there’s always a home for it somewhere on the web. People like Ross Hudgens understand this. And even if you really don’t think you have something to promote, talking about the idea of your site and what it’s there to do should almost always get you included on a resources list or links page if it’s completely relevant.
Prospecting for opportunities: is it scalable?
Unless you’re peddling crap, sites will probably link to you provided you’re relevant and your outreach email doesn’t suck. So the trick is to find relevant, scalable opportunities.
Clubs and enthusiast and hobby groups are great opportunities. Take this rather overloaded links page on a Model Flyer’s club website. I found this link in the link profile of a competitor’s RC models site while researching the games and toys vertical.
There are literally hundreds of websites to visit from this page, and while they might not all look exactly cutting edge, they’re updated and maintained.
And the wonderful thing about so many sites like these is the contact details are clearly visible and the tactic might be scalable.
But you can learn so much from traversing sites in different verticals. That, for example, there are 820 local model flying clubs in the UK. That’s a potential for 820 links to your site, using all but one carefully chosen tactic via a site discovered in a backlink profile.
There are literally tens of thousands club sites who link out.
Thinking scalably is really, really cool.
And my favourite tactic – lots of those sites have how to get started pages.
The “getting started in” link building strategy
Let’s stick with RC models for a while. If you’re interested in building links in this space you would be (or should be by now) tripping over yourself to do something like this:
- Create a guide or series on getting started in this hobby
- Get some feedback on that guide in one of the many Reddit communities or Forums
- Develop it
- Offering it out to the link prospects as a nice way to augment one of their resources on their own site
Very often it’s a bad idea to register in a forum and drop a link in a post. It’ll probably be deleted. Instead, register and message the forum owner asking if it’s OK to post a resource to gather feedback on your resource from the forum members. Most of the time you’re given the go ahead. The same works on Reddit if you just ask for feedback in the post.
What’s better? High domain authority but completely irrelevant link or a lower domain authority link that’s bang in the middle of the subject field and therefore totally relevant?
My take is go for the high value links when you’ve got a good story or asset to promote but never turn your back on the relevant domains that are closer in nature to the subject you specialise in. They’re the ones to rely on.
I quite enjoyed our RC models example earlier, so let’s continue:
Looking for links and resource pages is a great test for your skills with Google’s operators. It’s easy to find hundreds of sites that you’d want to seriously consider talking to:
“model flying club inurl:links” (link)
Or: “model flying club inurl:resources (link)
These are just a few of my favourite tactics in situations where the content might not be immediately available for outreach. For more ideas take a look at my quick wins SEO post for link reclamation ideas.
Link building guides are a good start but don’t share any sector specific knowledge
The problem with link building guides is they either attempt to use SEO websites as the example of something working or they’re trying to make advice generic across verticals.
This simply doesn’t work well. You could spend a whole day filling your head with link building tactics from lists on the web and be no better off for it. Do review them and take their advice into account but you can’t compensate for actually having a go and learning what works in your own verticals.
In the end, if you want to make a website rank you have to learn the vertical. To get good at it (and avoid penalties) really only requires some lateral thinking and a good understanding of why the authentic sites link and a willingness to avoid well known and abused SEO shortcuts.
When the “big links” aren’t on the table this is what will matter.