This guide will teach you how to get quality links that move the needle without risking a Google penalty. We created it with absolute beginners in mind and made sure to pack it with plenty of actionable advice that you can start implementing right away.
Link building is the process of getting other websites to link to pages on your website. Its purpose is to boost the “authority” of your pages in the eyes of Google so that these pages rank higher and bring more search traffic.
According to Google’s Andrey Lipattsev, links are one of the three major ranking factors in Google. So if you want your website’s pages to rank high in search, you will almost certainly need links.
Google and other search engines look at links from other sites as “votes.” These votes help them identify which page on a given topic (out of thousands of similar ones) deserves to rank at the very top of the search results.
Thus, as a general rule, pages with more backlinks tend to rank higher in search results.
Links aren’t the answer to everything
Links are incredibly important for ranking well. And it is quite rare that you will outrank pages that have a lot of strong links—unless you get just as many. And yet, links aren’t the only factor that Google uses to rank pages.
So if you build lots of links to your page and it still ranks poorly, look into other ranking factors that might prevent you from ranking well.
If you can go to a website that doesn’t belong to you and manually place your link there, that’s called “adding” a link. The most common tactics that fit into this category are:
- Business directory submissions.
- Social profile creation.
- Blog commenting.
- Posting to forums, communities, and Q&A sites.
- Creating job search listings.
Building links via those tactics is very easy to do. And for that exact reason, such links tend to have very low value in the eyes of Google. In some cases, they may even be flagged as spam.
Other than that, these kinds of links barely give you any competitive advantage. If you can go to a website and manually place your link there, nothing stops your competitors from doing the same.
However, you shouldn’t ignore this group of link building tactics entirely. Each of them can actually be quite beneficial for your online business for reasons other than SEO.
Let me elaborate with a couple of quick examples:
- Business directories – If you’re doing SEO for a restaurant website, you should definitely list it in three to five major directory sites like Yelp, Tripadvisor, Allmenus, Grubhub, etc. Those links won’t be particularly strong ones, but you might get some actual customers from them.
- Industry forums – If you know some active forums or communities where your target audience is hanging out, you should definitely be active there too. But merely spamming your links without trying to add value to conversations will quickly get you banned from these places.
As you can tell, each of these strategies can be quite meaningful. But if someone offers you to do any of the above at scale (i.e., register your site at a hundred business directories or create a hundred social media profiles)—stay away from that. These kinds of “hacks” are a waste of money at best and might even get your website penalized at worst.
While looking for more ways to “add” links to other websites, you might come across tactics that mention “web 2.0s” and “bookmarking sites.” Those things used to work some 15 years ago, but you shouldn’t waste your time on them today.
As the name suggests, this is when you reach out to the owner of the website you want a link from and give them a compelling reason to link to you.
That “compelling reason” is an absolutely essential success factor. The people you reach out to don’t care about you and your website (unless you’re some sort of celebrity) and, thus, they have zero incentive to promote you or your work.
So before you ask them to link to you, ask yourself: “What’s in it for THEM?”
Here are some of the link building tactics and strategies that fall into this category, along with a briefly defined “compelling reason” that they’re based off:
- Guest blogging – Create useful content for their website.
- Skyscraper technique – Show them a better resource than the one they’re linking to.
- Link inserts – Show them a resource with more information on something they’ve briefly mentioned.
- Ego bait – Mention them or their work in your own content in a positive light.
- Testimonials and case studies – Give positive feedback about their product or service.
- Link exchanges – Offer to link back to them if they agree to link to you.
- Resource page link building – Show them a good resource that fits their existing list.
- Broken link building – Help them fix a “dead” link on their page by providing a replacement.
- Image link building – Ask to get credit for using your image.
- Unlinked mentions – Ask to make the mention of your brand “clickable.”
- Link moves – Ask to make changes to an existing link pointing at your website.
- HARO and journalist requests – Give an “expert quote” for their article.
- PR – Give them a killer story to cover.
These strategies seem to make quite some sense, right? But as soon as you send your first email request, you’re likely to face the harsh reality—your “compelling reason” isn’t compelling enough:
- Your guest post isn’t good enough.
- Your resource isn’t worthy of a mention.
- Your “skyscraper” isn’t as “tall” as you thought it was.
The truth is it is incredibly hard to persuade random website owners to link to you. Either you have a one-of-a-kind outstanding resource that will genuinely impress them, or you’re well known in your field and they will be happy to fix you a link as a favor.
If it’s none of the two, you better handle rejection well. Because for every 100 emails, 98 will either not reply or say “no.”
And that is exactly the reason why many SEOs started looking for ways to make it worthwhile for the other party and offer something in return for a link, such as:
- A shoutout on social media.
- An email newsletter blast.
- Free access to a premium product or service.
- A link in exchange.
But offering these kinds of “extras” gets them into the gray area of what is considered a “link scheme,” according to Google’s guidelines.
So there you have it. The candid ways of asking for links have a rather low success rate. But as soon as you try to “sweeten the deal,” you’re entering Google’s minefield.
At this point, it may seem that I’m dissuading you from using tactics and strategies listed in this group. I’m not. I’m merely suggesting that you ensure your content is outstanding before reaching out to hundreds of people.
Let’s get this straight from the get-go:
We don’t recommend that you buy links!
If you don’t have lots of experience with it, you’re likely to waste lots of money on useless links that will have zero impact on your rankings. Or even get your website penalized.
However, we will be putting you at a disadvantage if we don’t disclose the fact that many people in the SEO industry do “buy” links in all sorts of ways and manage to get away with it.
So if you’re willing to risk the well-being of your website and buy links, please look for advice on doing that “safely” elsewhere—because here at Ahrefs, we don’t teach that.
You “earn” links when other people link to the pages on your website without you having to ask them to do so. This obviously doesn’t happen unless you have something truly outstanding that other website owners will genuinely want to mention on their websites.
But people can’t link to things that they don’t know exist. So no matter how awesome your page is, you’ll need to invest in promoting it. And the more people see your page, the higher the chance that some of them will end up linking to it.
Later in this chapter, I’m going to share some tactics and strategies that will help you both create “link-worthy” content and promote it to relevant audiences who might end up linking to it.
Technically, preserving your hard-earned links does not really fall under the definition of “link building.” But when you lose an important backlink, the “vote” that it was sending to Google is also lost. So it is fairly important to preserve your hard-earned links.
There are two simple ways to do it:
- Fixing 404 pages that have quality backlinks
- Monitoring your lost backlinks and reaching out to a website owner when an important link goes missing (also known as “link reclamation”)
Both of these things are easy to do with Ahrefs’ Site Explorer. The Best by links report will help you find the 404 pages with links. While the Backlinks report has a handy “Lost” filter, which will show you all links that were recently lost.
One important caveat, though. You don’t need to bother about every single link that goes missing. You just need to preserve the most important ones. And that is exactly what we’re going to talk about next.
Nobody knows for sure how exactly Google measures the value of each link. But there are some general concepts of evaluating links that the SEO community believes to be true:
- Anchor text
- Nofollow vs. follow
As you already know, Google sees links as “votes” that a given page deserves to rank well. But a link from techcrunch.com can’t possibly have the same power as a link from your friend’s personal blog, right? (Unless, of course, your friend is Tim Ferriss.)
Well, Google has consistently denied that some sort of sitewide website authority metric exists in its system. And yet, many SEOs believe that the concept of “website authority” makes too much sense to completely discount it.
What is more important, though, is the authority of the actual page that is linking to you. It’s one thing to be mentioned in a TechCrunch article that goes unnoticed, and it’s an entirely different case if that article “breaks the internet” and gets referenced on dozens of major news websites.