Audience-First Link Building

“The links that people are most likely to follow are the ones that end up carrying the most weight.” – Bill Slawski, on Google’s Reasonable Surfer Patent

Years have passed since the inception of Google’s PageRank algorithm, and probably dozens of algorithmic updates related to the link graph.

Yet, links still remain as one of the most important search ranking factors (listed as #1 on the recent study made by Branded3).

Given its significance over the years, link building has grown to become the most difficult aspect of SEO (and it will certainly get even harder).

It can get frustrating a lot of times.

With updates/changes like the last Penguin 4.0 (that now runs in real-time and part of Google’s core search algorithm), there should be no more gray area.

It’s either you get great links or just shitty ones.

And in some cases, there might be no need to disavow the types of links that Google usually penalize you with, according to Gary Illyes from Google:

With the new Penguin 4.0 – this new algorithm no longer “demotes” but rather “devalues.”

Demotes would mean that it would lower the rankings of a web site for doing something bad. Devalues means it would likely ignore the link spam and not downgrade the rank of the web site. It might feel like a demotion when a link is not counted. Instead of dropping down let’s say 10 pages, you might only drop a page because those links no longer have any value but there is no additional demotion to your web site.”

Good vs. Bad Links

A quick recap of the elements and characteristics of good links:

  • From trusted and highly credible domains/websites.
  • From topically relevant pages.
  • Can drive (referral) traffic.
  • Use highly descriptive anchor texts.
  • Easily accessible to search crawlers
  • Editorially controlled

The bad ones (via Ahrefs):

Of course, you could still automate link building these days (using services posted on Fiverr), but you should also prepare yourself for results like this:

Link Building in 2018

Link building has always been more of a branding tool (not just a fraction of SEO). It’s a combination of art and science, wherein the primary objective is to build trust.

But trust can’t be built through numbers and technology alone (Technical). The practice requires a lot of creativity, psychology, and a ton of human effort (or Marketing) for it to be truly effective.

As an agency looking to scale our services, we’ve definitely had to build processes around it.

But focusing too much on processes often times lead to compromising the other end of digital PR – the human-side of it:

Having the right mindset.

So what’s the best strategies or tactics to build links these days?

To answer this very simple question, you must first understand the kinds of links you actually need to genuinely move the needle – from both branding and SEO-perspective.

This is what I personally believe (and I’ve mentioned this many times in this blog, and perhaps a few times in some of my talks in conferences):

“The types of links that really matter are often content-based and/or relationship-driven.”

Which echoes Bill Slawski’s thoughts on Google’s Reasonable Surfer Patent:

“The links that people are most likely to follow are the ones that end up carrying the most weight.”

Two of the biggest reasons why people link to websites are either through:

  • The content they provide (could be information, product, or service).
  • Or the relationship they have with the brand/entity (ex: sources, strategic partners, industry friends, mentors, or brands they actually use).

Everything in digital starts with (great) content. But to truly succeed in link earning and acquisition campaigns, as Rand puts it:

“You need to have a great answer to this question: Who will help amplify your content and why?”.

Apparently, having a solid answer to this question is the best way to build links to your site.

The Audience-First Link Building Approach

I’ve always believed that to educate is the best way to sell.

This statement also rings true when it comes to building links. Because in essence, you are selling/promoting an idea that’s worth sharing.

Content allows us to educate and influence our intended audience. As marketers, it also allows us to demonstrate our brand’s expertise and what our products/services can help solve.  

Content & Relationships that work:

I won’t delve into too much detail on content creation and development, but here’s a quick recap of our process in creating 10x content assets:

Create content around informational keywords that matter for your business – that are:

  • Genuinely useful and/or educational.
  • Evergreen and authoritative (backed by evidence and research).
  • 10x better than the ones currently ranking.
  • Have high chances of attracting & earning links (it’s important to ensure that there are existing linking opportunities for the topic as well).
  • And you can confidently promote on a massive scale through outreach (or paid social campaigns).

Content types and formats that work:

I’ve discussed this part extensively on my advanced SEO strategies guide (with actual samples and data).

  • Freemium tools
  • Lists (listicles)
  • Comprehensive guides & tutorials
  • Checklists & visual content guides
  • Data-driven case studies & success stories

Samples of relationship-driven links:

Keyword research has been a staple first step in content creation. And many tend to spend less time in audience research during this phase.

But one trick that we like doing while still in the content planning stage is identifying a small set of prospects that we’d reach out to once the content is done (especially important when you plan to implement a content-based link building outreach).

These prospects are your audience too!

A few questions to help you validate the linkability of your content idea (through a small sample size of prospects):

  • Will they or their readers/followers find our content/product/service useful?  
  • Will they actually share this piece/product/service? Review their social profiles and see the types of content they are sharing.
  • Will they link to this content/product/service? See if they’ve linked to an existing resource that is similar to yours in the past.

Below are some tips and examples on how you can integrate audience targeting with your link building efforts.

1. Appeal to Sales People

A few months ago, we launched a test site in the finance sector (locally targeted).

We chose the finance space mainly because of the challenge. Given that the level of difficulty and competition in this particular industry is very high, and choosing to target a local audience means there would only be a few link opportunities to pursue.  

Which is something we’d like to disprove.

Before launching the site, we’ve already figured the best people who would amplify our first content organically (even before going live).

Our first content was basically just a list of the best investment vehicles (we’ve made sure that it would be the most comprehensive about the topic in our target SERPs).   

We initially planned to list either cryptocurrency (since we’ve invested in it too) or real estate at the top. Though eventually changed it when we’ve realized that insurance brokers/agents in the country are way more active on the social web.

Promoting the content:

1. We’ve spent $5 to boost the content on Facebook (for post engagement – to mainly get more likes).

2. Spent another $5 to drive traffic to the actual post – only targeting financial advisors and insurance agents in the country.

We’ve realized that people being targeted by ads are more likely to share a Facebook sponsored post/story when it already has hundreds or thousands of likes.

By helping our target audience to validate the idea they are selling (and in a way triggering emotions), we’ve managed to somehow automate organic sharing (with just a $10 investment).

3. Bigger publications started picking up the story. We started receiving requests to republish our content.

Some turned it into a video content:

While some turned it into an image-based content:

Building links to the content:

1. Social proof made it easier to connect to people and beg for links.

2. Proof of work opened more opportunities for relationship building and linking (ex: getting invited to become a guest author or contributor).

3. With enough links and activity, the page eventually improved its organic visibility.

And seeing that it ranks for informational queries, it will have better chances of earning/attracting more links on its own in the future.

Key Takeaway: Target the most vocal and active part of your industry in social sharing.

2. Appeal to Content Creators

Start positioning your brand to attract and earn more links through Featured Snippets.

You can read my tips on how to rank for Featured Snippets here.

Target or steal low-competition industry-specific terms. Focus on terminologies or jargons that authors/content creators will usually have to describe when used in their writings.

Because, seriously, it’s one of the best ways to build hundreds of links to a site (without the need of implementing outreach).

Another way to appeal to content creators is through providing high-quality branded images. Especially to independent bloggers who don’t have graphic artists on their team.

Infographics and data visualizations still work tremendously. Offer these kinds of visual content assets to complement existing blog posts – or pitch it to help generate new content ideas.

If your brand sells products (physical, digital or SaaS), you can also provide well-designed product manuals or product hacks (or embeddable videos) to bloggers reviewing products in your space.

3. Appeal to Educators

We’ve built over 200+ links from .edu sites last year, by predominantly developing and promoting more content that provide a ton of value to students as well.

Content Types that work:

  • Comprehensive Cheatsheets
  • Guides specifically targeted to students who will soon work in your industry
  • Student and faculty deals/discount pages
  • Research that features educators and expert practitioners

Broken link building works really well with .edu library guides and resources pages.

The abovementioned approach is applicable to any space. Be creative to find gaps you can fill in.

You can also check out more .edu outreach strategies here.

4. Appeal to Editors & Publishers

Content in many fields have been overly-saturated.

There are probably hundreds of thousands of guest post pitches being sent out every week.

I receive dozens of these requests per week, and I’m sure a lot of other publishers are already catching up as well.

You’d see some requiring guest authors to sign an agreement, while some set traps in their guest blogging guidelines (so they can easily filter those who have actually read their guidelines).  

It will get even harder to stand out.

I follow this very simple rule in outreach:

Focus heavily on: value proposition and personalization.

On Value Proposition & Personalization

To be able to genuinely provide value:

  • You really have to do your research on their sites.
  • Know what they actually need/want.
  • Be very clear about what you can offer.

Provide better topics to pitch (when doing outreach for guest blogging). Do a content gap analysis to be sure (using Ahrefs).  

This can somehow ensure that you’ll be pitching a topic they actually need/want from their contributors. You can read the entire process here.

See if they’ve covered the topic (you’ve chosen) in the past.

Analyze why their content didn’t work. And explain what will be different about yours.

Sending out highly targeted pitches also elevates how personalized your outreach copies will appear.

Remember, personalized emails equates to better response rates, while offering a ton of value results to better acquisition rates.

Here’s a great tip from Jon Cooper on outreach:

Lastly, I also wanted to point out that I personally see a lot of value in seeking for more opportunities for regular columns (than one-off guest blogs). Since it’s also a great way to get into other publishers’ radars.

Often times, it can also lead to getting invited to participate in group interviews or expert roundups (which means more link opportunities).

5. Appeal to Influencers

Identify the big movers in your industry.

You can use tools like Twitter Search or FollowerWonk to find out the most followed personalities in your space..

Study, analyze and emulate the kinds of content they share, link to, and learn from.

It’s the best way to reach and get access to their audience.

Mention them or their work in your own authoritative content. Get their feedback (ego bait collaborate).

And focus on sharing ideas they won’t see elsewhere.

6. Appeal to Indirect Competitors

Create content aimed towards building strategic partnerships.

Say if you’re an ecommerce store selling digital cameras, why not promote the top photographers in locations where you sell your products (or vice versa).

Though – aside from this being great for branding – It would still be more appealing to them when it’s ranking. It becomes more rational for them to link to your content when it’s sending consistent traffic to their business.

You can also provide embeddable badges when using this approach to secure links.

Possible next step: Invite them to write a guest blog on your site (especially the active ones). Active guest bloggers link to their own works (and you can certainly build a lot of natural links through this approach alone).

Link Intersect

Another way to acquire links from indirect competitors is through finding websites linking to multiple competitors but are not linking to you.

If your product/service/content offers the same level of quality and experience to its users (or better), you’ll have better chances of getting featured on those sites as well.

Note: Ahrefs has this feature.

7. Appeal to your Future Brand Advocates

Lastly, which I think is the most important one, is to build brand mindshare through consistency.

Focus on a specific niche where you can excel and have a really strong chance of standing out. And build your brand through making a firm stand.

Get your message out there by:

  • Writing more about what you are really knowledgeable and passionate about.
  • Contributing and adding value to relevant discussions.
  • Becoming everywhere (whether through guest posts, blog comments, or forum discussions).

SEO as an industry and a practice is vast. But over the years, my brand’s message has been pretty much the same. That someone from the Philippines can also do high-level link building.

Liked this post? Follow me on Twitter @jasonacidre.