An introduction to link building

A great introduction to link building where we cover what it is, why you need to do it how to do it effectively.

Successful search engine optimization (SEO) requires inbound links from quality relevant websites. Ken McGaffin and Mark Nunney here outline the definitive steps in a successful, long term link building campaign ...

Search on Google with one of your most popular keywords and you'll likely find millions of results. How does Google decide who comes first? And how can you persuade Google to give you a higher ranking in the results?

Search Google with office furniture, for example (see image below), and there 120 million sites in the results. How do you beat over 120 million other websites?

office furniture search

You've got to work on two main areas - the keywords you use on your own web pages (on-page SEO) and the links on external websites that point to yours (link building).

On-page factors are easy to manipulate and therefore search engines don't base their algorithms on them alone. They look for more information in the links that point to your website. These are much more difficult to manipulate and so are given precedence in search engine algorithms.

So successful SEO soon requires successful link building. That can be a daunting task and it's why we've written this article.

Good content, an understanding of your online community and knowing how to get external sites to link to yours are all needed to build quality links over time.

This is entirely possible no matter what your level of experience - just approach the job systematically and give it sufficient time and you'll soon be getting quality backlinks without even asking for them.

Here we'll take you through 62 steps of the following eight stages of the definitive link building campaign:

1) Preparation
2) Strategy
3) Quick wins
4) Content
5) Prospects
6) Networking
7) Promotion
8) Report, debrief & repeat

We'll then give you a link to a spreadsheet containing a checklist you can use for your own link building campaigns.

1. Preparation

No matter how good your plans for a link building campaign, you’ll struggle without sound business practices, good inter-department relations and monitoring metrics in place. Prepare with these first steps ...

1) Decide who will do what and how

Who blogs? Who tweets? Who comments? What’s your company’s social media policy? What software will be used? What accounts will be used for sending and receiving emails to and from bloggers? How will records of (and contact with) link prospects be kept and accessed? For example, can you find all bloggers you have contacted twice who have not yet replied?

2) Make sure you’ve got a clear decision-making process

You might be going into new territory for your company. Is blogging the job of the PR department or the online marketing department? (We’ve seen SEO under one and blogging under another). How is risk assessed? How will options be discussed and decisions reached? If these issues aren’t sorted out then your campaign can be paralyzed (and it’s why big companies often are).

3) Ensure you can make rapid changes to your site

Sounds simple enough but it often isn’t. With one client, to get a blog post live, we had to: write it, get it approved by a PR company and then a government department - the process took up to a week (quick compared to some companies!) and at times a post would come back unfit for purpose and too late to be worth publishing.

Agree processes in advance with all concerned parties. If multiple parties need to sign off then make sure there’s an efficient system for them all to read and comment on the same document at the same time. Try using a Google Doc to hold the copy and then record feedback in the doc’s comments, or (better for leaving an audit trail) project management software (like Teamwork PM) or even another G doc.

4) Decide what metrics, reports and tools to use

For example, inbound links, visits, SERPs ranks, mentions, email recruits, feed subscriptions, sales. As well as total links, you might count links containing target keywords in their link text. Be aware that there are many factors outside your control - you might be lucky and get good results for little effort; or you might have the best link building campaign ever but fail for other reasons. Metrics are there to help you. Of course you need results but concentrate more on how you do things (your method, your process - this is what this book is for) and results will be more to do with your considered actions than luck.

You can count links with Google Analytics Google Webmaster and a tool like Citation Labs.

Stage 2. Strategy

It’s best to know where you’re going, why and how you’re going to get there (ie, your strategy) before you start your journey.

The planning required for a link building strategy starts with learning about your company, its history and plans.

Link building and SEO translate your company and marketing strategies into matching target markets and keyword niches (searches) with plans to be successful for them.

5) Know your company’s strategy and tactics

The primary goals of the company, its marketing objectives and how it aims to meet them.

6) Know your company, website and target markets’ history and plans

What successes and failures have there been? What has/has not worked and why?

Know and work with company, website and marketing calendars. Which topics will be promoted and covered and when? What special promotions will be run for holidays and different seasons?

What events are going on within the business and the market place?

7) Make friends with stakeholders

The greatest challenge in link building (and most business) is ‘getting things done’. Link building requires cooperation and action from multiple departments and they are all busy. So make friends, help your colleagues, work with their plans and find ways of making them look good.

8) Choose and use target keywords and keyword niches

Keywords are the words and phrases used to search. For SEO, this means you must decide which keywords you are targeting.

You can scale up your SEO and results and reach the long tail of search by targeting keyword niches. A keyword niche is all keywords containing a seed keyword eg, the gas barbecues keyword niche includes camping gas barbecues, natural gas barbecues and thousands of other variations.

9) Group your target keyword niches into market sectors

Then focus your link building work on each market sector in turn. So, for example, if your website is an online garden center you might categorize your keyword niches into market sectors like the following:

  • seeds
  • plants
  • garden furniture
  • water features
  • barbecues
  • etc, etc ...

10) (Carefully) use target keywords in your link (anchor) text

Include target keywords in the text of internal and external (from other sites) links. But don’t always use the same exact match keywords in your link text: use longer phrases, synonyms, plurals and sometimes your brand name alone.

11) Infuse all your link building and promotion with your brand name

For example, don’t just use gas barbecues, use Barbilicious gas barbecues if ‘Barbilicious’ is your brand name.

If you are launching a new design line called, say ‘Vintage Chic’, call it ‘MyBrand Vintage Chic’.

Stage 3. Quick wins

Although significant success from link building takes time, everyone wants quick wins and fortunately it’s usually possible to find some.

12) Target keyword niches that currently deliver the best results

Work first on the target keyword niches that deliver the highest response rates as small improvements should bring immediate results.

13) Optimize your target keywords’ pages with internal links and more content

Add internal optimized links pointing to the pages optimized for your target keyword niches. Find ways of adding links from your home page (and other powerful pages) to these target pages.

Add more related content to your target pages and you’ll get more visits for related long tail keywords.

Add internal links across the site. All across your site, add optimized links (using target keywords in the anchor text) to related pages.

14) Get quick links where you can

For example, from:

  • Other websites you own or manage.
  • Friends’ websites.
  • Sites that already link to yours (also ask for existing links to be optimized).
  • Sites that link to more than one competitor (perhaps those links are easy to get).
  • Create 301 redirects for existing inbound links to pages that don’t exist (404 errors - see below).

Stage 4. Content

Quality content is essential for natural link building and is a constant theme of this book. This is because the most important factor in getting links without asking is creating something worth linking to. The steps below take you through some of your options for creating link-worthy content, but always:

  • Create content that surprises and delights your targets, with ‘hooks baited’ to their needs and passions.
  • Publish on your own site, external sites and a range of social media, eg, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and Tumblr
  • Create multiple types of content. Eg, text posts, videos, photos and infographics.
  • Publish regularly.
  • Support the sales process.

15) Always be looking for spectacular content

It can turbo charge your link building. But even in competitive markets, a solid, consistent approach will bring rewards over time.

16) Make the most of the content you already have

Is it linkworthy? Can it be made so? In some recent work for a national retailer, after some digging around we found gold - a large collection of quality how-to content stuffed away in PDF format in a hidden corner of an old website.

17) Publish one-off and regular industry news

Every industry has news sites that need industry news. Provide a regular supply, use target keywords in your headlines and you’ll get links from pages relevant to your content (good) using your target keywords (perfect).

18) Target national media news with one-off stories and regular content

National news is a tougher nut to crack but be persistent and you can get results. Services like HARO (HelpAReporterOut) can help.

19) Customize your news for regional media

Regional news is easier to get coverage and links from. The obvious technique is to give your news stories a regional angle.

20) Ask target bloggers/experts to comment on a subject you’re writing about

Once you’ve earned a reputation, you can post whole articles with no more than other experts’ opinions.

21) Interview key industry personalities

If an expert is speaking at a conference or writing regular blog posts they’ll want publicity and coverage. Offer it and they’ll speak to you. Make the interview as interesting as you can and others will link to you.

22) Review other sites and resources

When you review another site, there’s a good chance they will link to your review. You might make friends at the same time too.

23) Link to any reviews of your own site

When other sites review you, link to their reviews. Do you have any product you can send for review? If you are a service and you have spare capacity then work for free and for the publicity.

24) Learn how to produce videos

You can do all of the above in video format. Pretty much all mentioned content ideas here can be in video format or accompanied by videos.

25) Publish collections of photos and videos.

People love photographs and will link to them. Social sites like Mix (formerly StumbleUpon) and Digg love collections of stunning and interesting photographs. Many photographs on sites like Flickr can be reused for free.

26) Curate content

Choose an interesting or topical subject and explore it by gathering content from a range of sources (blogs, news, Twitter, Flickr, G+). There are a number of curation tools to help you, eg, Storify

27) Publish infographics

Good infographics are not cheap or quick to make but they can make a dull or hard-to-understand subject appealing.

28) Conduct surveys or polls (for stories and PR)

Surveys are great for market research and improving your products: and provide stories that news sites and blogs love to link to. Try SurveyMonkey

29) Run competitions and giveaways

It’s easy for a competition to be ignored, so make it interesting and make it simple to understand and enter. Submit to the competition sites (there are plenty).

30) Create free widgets and tools

Some sites create almost useless tools just to get the links from sites that list free tools. Far better to make a genuinely useful free tool that keeps on giving value to users and links to you.

31) Publish free downloadable guides and whitepapers

Take some content, wrap it up into a PDF and you have yourself a ‘free guide’.

32) Collect and publish case studies

Readers want specific content - examples. Case studies are detailed examples.

33) Create lists

Collections of useful stuff like lists, top tips, how-tos, 10 best, 10 worst, etc can seem trivial to an expert writer but they are loved by many and they get links. Want some ideas? Search for 10 best and 10 worst then adapt and ‘switch’ (ie, rewrite) the best content to your market.

Stage 5. Prospects

Find and explore your target market’s online community. Build and prioritize lists of link prospects.

There are many opportunities for this as we show below. But you must always record your prospects’ details either in a spreadsheet, a bespoke contact management tool or specialist link building software.

Read all you can on the quality sites you find. Follow links to the websites they mention. Wander around and see what and who is in the community. What do people like and dislike? What do they get passionate about (write about these subjects)? Always be looking for link prospects and ideas.

34) Prioritize links that will deliver traffic without search engines

The most valuable prospects for SEO are sites you’d would want links from if there were no search engines (that’s SEO irony). Prioritize such links.

35) Look for the ‘magic middle’

You might not be important enough to attract the attention of the most popular and significant influencers in your target online communities. The magic middle is made up of those sites, writers and bloggers who are either happy to be smaller players or on the way to the ‘big time’.

The magic middle is full of hungry and talented people (often the most talented - as getting to ‘the top’ can be more about politics than ability) who want to make friends. Just like you.

36) Check your own site’s inbound links and referrers

Use your site’s analytics, Google Webmaster Tools and a tool like Citation Labs to identify sites that already link to you. These existing links can be optimized. One link might lead to more links or a partnership of some kind.

Use Google Webmaster Tools to find links to your site to URLs that don’t exist (404 errors). 301 redirect these links to appropriate pages.

37) Look for a range of different types of sites


  • News and media sites (think local and national).
  • Blogs.
  • Social media.
  • Job sites.
  • Directories.
  • Shopping sites.
  • Trusted sites.
  • Business sites.
  • Local sites (including libraries).

38) Look for specialist sites that accept article submissions

Contact any specialist sites and bloggers and ask if they want guest content written by you.

39) Approach your suppliers

They have websites, right?

To help find all the above ...

40) Use tools like Citation Labs

A search in Citation Labs will find sites that link to the top 10 sites on Google for that keyword. Those inbound links are all link prospects. They are organized into different types of sites that can be used for different linking strategies including blogs, directories, social, news, business and jobs.

41) Research competing websites

Do regular searches with your target keywords. Study inbound links, press releases, successful content and tactics of the sites you find.

42) Search with advanced queries

For example, try the following …

Find pages with your keyword on them and “submit url” contained within the anchor text of links pointing to them (in other words, find sites about subjects related to that keyword that accept submissions):

<keyword> inanchor:”submit url”

Find pages that link to competitor1 and competitor2 but not your site:;;

For more advanced Google queries, aka ‘search operators’, see GoogleGuide

Stage 6. Networking

Having identified your link prospects, you now have to build relationships with them.

That means getting to know them, and making sure they get to know about you. On Twitter, G+, blog and forum comments: study, start commenting when confident, don’t mention your own products at first. Most of all - make friends.

43) Build press lists

Contact journalists, make yourself available as an expert and show your pedigree. Get to know them, chat and build trust. Always respond promptly to requests. Try HARO.

44) Join forums

Register, use your ‘signature’ (the bit of text at the bottom of each post you make, be more helpful than promotional, earn community trust.

45) Take part in specialist social sites

Register, help, etc.

46) Look for specialist groups on big social sites

On Facebook, StumbleUpon and Twitter, search for groups and lists.

47) Join trade associations and chambers of commerce

Be active, look for contacts and linking opportunities. They are there to help and that includes mentions and links.

48) Build a list of email addresses

Offer free stuff and regular updates of more free stuff with a subscription to your free email newsletter.

Stage 7. Promotion

So you know why you’re building links (your strategy); which keywords you’re targeting; you’ve researched and established yourself in your market’s online community; and are creating quality content. Now what? You’ve got to let people know about that content, of course.

It’s time to promote and here’s a detailed list of methods for you to consider:

49) Post on your site/blog

You’re doing that anyway, of course. But it’s amazing what people forget if it’s not on a checklist.

50) Publish in your free newsletter to your email list

This can be the best way to promote your content for links, mentions and word of mouth.

51) Create RSS feeds

Try registering with Feedburner.

52) Submit content to generic social sites

Eg, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Digg, Pinterest and Google+.

53) Submit to your specialist social networking sites

Here’s a list of some specialist social networking sites

54) Contact your specialist contacts

Use email, direct tweets and even telephone.

55) Contact journalists

For those you know personally don’t just issue press releases, contact them directly.

For the most influential media sites, consider contacting them and asking what kind of content they want and offering an exclusive (works well for infographics).

56) Contribute guest posts and articles

Contribute to specialist blogs and sites.

57) Issue press releases

Use online and offline specialist distributors (like PRWeb and Press Dispensary). And consider Eric Ward’s URLwire - it’s a paid-for service but is top quality.

58) Buy promotional links (adverts)

On generic sites like StumbleUpon, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook; specialist sites; and Pay Per Click (PPC). The links won’t directly help your SEO but others might share your content and those links will. And it’s all branding.

59) Buy links for SEO

We don’t recommend buying links for any site you have long term ambitions for.

Stage 8. Report, debrief & repeat

We recommend separate link building campaigns for each of your target market sectors. Work on one campaign after the other but try to overlap each so that search engines don’t see too many surges of similar links at one time.

As each campaign comes to an ‘end’, review your results, tactics, strategy and execution. Find lessons to learn and apply to your next campaign. Consider the following:

60) Improve your strategy

Are you targeting the right keyword niches and markets?

61) Improve your tactics

Look at your reports for both deliverables and results including links, social mentions, ranks, visits, visits and response from linking sites. Which tactics worked and which did not? Will successful tactics for one campaign work for another?

62) Streamline your systems

Were you able to get done what you needed to do quickly and cheaply enough? If not how can you change that?

You’ll find these (in a Google doc spreadsheet) here 62 steps in a checklist:

Use the checklist to plan the details of your next link building campaign (one for each market sector).

Now go back to Stage 2 above and plan the details of your next campaign targeting your next market sector.