Link Building for SEO: Which Strategies Work in 2020 (and Which Don’t)

Ranking on the search engine results page isn’t easy. When you are competing against companies with seemingly endless marketing budgets, you need to figure out how to be more effective with your given marketing resources. Thankfully, link building is a great organic way to build traffic and have your website content begin ranking on the search engine results page.

If you intend to rank a website on Google search results in 2020, you can’t ignore the importance of link building and the need to put together a solid strategy that will help you earn high-quality links. In fact, links remain one of the top three most important ranking factors out there.

That said, whether you are a total SEO beginner and are learning how to build links for the first time or have been doing it for years and just want to find new tactics that still work, there are literally dozens of approaches you can take.

In this guide, you will learn how to build links with strategies and tactics that are still effective and that will help you to earn those top-ranking positions, as well as knowing those that will see you wasting time and resources and that could potentially have a negative impact on your organic visibility. 

We will share quick win tactics alongside those that need a little more time and planning, but that can truly help you to get those ‘can’t buy’ links.

  • What is Link Building?
  • Why is Link Building Important For SEO?
  • What Are the Key Elements of a Successful Link Building Strategy?
  • White Hat vs. Black Hat vs. Grey Hat Link Building 
  • Toxic Links and the Potential Negative Impact of the Wrong Strategy
  • Link Building Strategies You Need to Know in 2020
  • Quick-Win Link Building Tactics
  • Traditional Link Building Tactics
  • Link Earning Tactics
  • Paid Link Building Tactics
  • How to Use Outreach for Link Building
  • Easy Ways to Discover Link Building Opportunities
  • Metrics to Measure the Success of Link Building

If you want to learn how to build better links than your competitors, then read on…

What is Link Building?

Link building is a key part of any successful SEO strategy that involves getting other websites to link to yours — a simple hyperlink from one site to another. It is also agreed by many that it is one of the hardest parts of ranking a website, whilst one of the most rewarding when you get it right. 

Not familiar with how links work?

When website A links to website B, it s a strong hint to Google’s algorithm that it deserves to rank higher for relevant keywords, and you might hear these referred to as inbound links, backlinks, external links, or, quite simply, just links. 

You can think of links from other websites like votes.

The more high quality links that point to your website (and form part of your backlink profile), the higher you should rank on Google, and, therefore, the higher level of organic traffic you should receive. 

However, links aren’t all created equal, and some can even cause your website to decrease in visibility, something that we will cover shortly. 

There are many different tactics that you can use to build links, some easier to execute than others, and knowing where to get started can sometimes be difficult, especially when you are aware that some can do more harm than good.

Why is Link Building Important For SEO?

Link building takes time and effort. There is no hiding from that fact.

It is also hard to get right, meaning that those who can successfully execute tactics to build better links than their competitors typically see significant growth in organic traffic and revenue.

And that is why you need to understand why links are so important and should account for a considerable portion of your SEO campaigns’ resources.

We delved deep into the importance of link building for SEO in our guide to backlinks, which you should check out for a detailed introduction to the what and the why behind this key pillar of any successful campaign.

However, the main reasons why you need to make sure you are placing a strong focus on link building as an SEO are:

  • You will rank higher on Google and other search engines.
  • Google will find new pages on your site faster.
  • You’ll enjoy increased credibility and trustworthiness as a business.
  • You could benefit from targeted referral traffic.

You can’t ignore link building, and you need to make sure you are rolling out tactics that give you a competitive advantage, something that we will show you how to do in this guide.

What Are the Key Elements of a Successful Link Building Strategy?

There is more to link building than it may seem, and not just in terms of the complexity of those tactics that deliver the best results and impact. 

When planning a link building strategy, you need to remember that not all links are equal and that there are key elements that drive forward success. 

You shouldn’t be building links blindly. 

By that, we mean that you need to know what a great link looks like for you and fully understand that the more effort you put into getting the right links, the better impact you will see.

Here are some of the key components that you need to focus on that make up a great link building strategy to help you understand what a great link profile looks like.

1. Contextual Links

Links on a page that are more likely to be clicked are typically those that hold the most value and can have the biggest impact on rankings and the way that Google measures the value of a link is with PageRank, and its ‘reasonable surfer model’ parent indicates that different features associated with links change how this flows. 

Bill Slawski explains this as:

If a link is in the main content area of a page, uses a font and color that might make it stand out, and uses text that may make it something likely that someone might click upon it, then it could pass along a fair amount of PageRank. On the other hand, if it combines features that make it less likely to be clicked upon, such as being in the footer of a page, in the same color text as the rest of the text on that page, and the same font type, and uses anchor text that doesn’t interest people, it may not pass along a lot of PageRank.

— Bill Slawski

Contextual links, those placed in the body of a web page’s content as opposed to the footer or sidebar, as an example, are typically higher quality links and are key to a successful strategy.

A contextual link is the clickable text (usually the keywords) found within the written content of your webpage. If used effectively, contextual linking can be proven a very strong SEO linking strategy for your website. Not only that, contextual linking earns you high credibility and popularity among users as well as search engines.

Contextual linking can be done for internal as well as external resources i.e. linking your inner webpages and/or give references to other websites. Both have their own paybacks.

2. A High Percentage of ‘Followed’ Links

Not all links pass PageRank and impact a site’s rankings. 

Links can have different attributes applied, with the main ones you need to know to be nofollow, sponsored, and UGC links.

Links that have a rel=”nofollow” attribute give a hint that Google should not crawl them and that they should not associate the two sites from a ranking perspective. 

Rel=”sponsored” attributes indicate that a link has been paid for (and therefore should not pass PageRank).

Rel=”UGC” showcases links that come from user-generated content such as forums and comments and indicates that these links are not editorially placed and may be manipulative.

If a link is referred to as a ‘followed’ link (or sometimes, a ‘dofollow’ link – even though this is technically not the right terminology), it means that there are no attributes in place that prevent PageRank from being passed and a great link profile should contain a high percentage of these, so long as they come from quality sources.

Summed up, follow links are links that count as points, pushing SEO link juice and boosting the page rank of the linked-to sites, helping them go higher in the SERPs as a result. On the other hand, a no follow links do not count as a point in the page’s favor, does not boost PageRank, and doesn’t help a page’s placement in the SERPs. No follow links get no love.

3. Editorially Placed Links

Editorially placed links are simply those that exist because a third-party has taken the decision to add a link from their website to yours, rather than because of payment, some other incentive, or that you were the one responsible for placing it and did so to increase your rankings.

An editorial link is a one-way link placed within the body of a content that is given naturally by other websites to specify a resource. Basically, it’s a form of citation on the web, which generally indicates that the destination of the link is the original source of the procured data, idea, concept or statement.

The most effective links are editorially placed, and Google themselves highlight in their guidelines that links that don’t fall under this categorization can be deemed unnatural.


4. A Focus on Links From Unique Referring Domains

A great link profile will see links coming from a higher number of unique referring domains rather than the same few time and time again.

It is widely reported that having links from a higher number of unique domains can help a site to rank in prominent positions, with Nick Eubanks commenting in this blog post that, “Often times when I see sites ranking with much lower authority, they tend to have a much stronger ratio of linking root domains versus their competitors.”

A successful strategy should always place a focus upon tactics that will see a link building campaign earn links from new domains that have never linked before to increase the number of unique linking domains. 

5. A Strong Topical Relevance

Links should be from websites and content that is closely related to your own site’s topic, and this is another great example of ensuring that you are not just building any links, but rather the right ones.

Remember that links originally existed on the web to navigate a user from page A to page B, and on this assumption, why would a link take you to something that wasn’t topically related?

It doesn’t make sense, does it? So be sure to follow this stance with your link building efforts. 

A great way to get yourself into this mindset is, when prospecting for link opportunities, is to ask whether you would still pursue it if Google didn’t exist or use links as part of its algorithm. 

If the answer is yes, perhaps because you would expect it to send quality referral traffic or help to increase your brand’s awareness or authority — this usually means it is from a topically related website where your audience hangs out online. 

If you would answer no, it is a good indication that the link isn’t relevant to your business. 

6. A Natural Anchor Text Mix

Anchor text is the text used to link from one page to another. Most naturally, it’s known as the clickable text in a hyperlink. SEO best practices dictate that anchor text be relevant to the page you’re linking to, rather than generic text. The blue, underlined anchor text is the web standard, as it’s the most common.

Naturally, when linking to a website, you would likely reference the brand name, the article title, or perhaps even just use ‘click here’ or similar. That said, Google’s algorithm utilizes anchor text as an indication of what a page is about and, therefore, it can influence rankings. 

However, Google’s guidelines clearly state that optimized anchor text (using your main target keywords or commercial terms) is a violation of their guidelines, and excessive use of this is a known contributor towards both manual actions and algorithmic filters being applied. 

Your link profile should contain a natural mix, with no obvious spike of links using optimized anchor text.  

White Hat vs. Black Hat vs. Grey Hat SEO and Link Building 

Types of SEO: How They Impact Your Business

If you are new to SEO and, more specifically, link building, you may have come across references to black hat, grey hat, and black hat tactics.

These need addressing, even though we will look at some of these approaches in more depth further into this guide.

Quite simply, white hat SEO uses tactics that strictly abide by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and take an ethical approach to earn top-ranking positions. It places a strong focus on optimizing for human audiences and is seen as a long-term approach to earn sustained visibility on the search engines. 

On the other hand, black hat SEO uses those that violate these guidelines and try to rank a site higher with manipulative tactics, usually looking to gain quick wins. Black hat SEO is usually frowned upon, and can actually hurt your site rankings if you are not cautious of your link building practices. Google employs a webspam team whose core focus is to ensure that websites using black hat tactics do not rank.

Grey hat SEO sits somewhere in the middle, using tactics that could be seen as manipulative and are riskier than white hat tactics, yet aren’t as obvious a violation of Google’s terms than black hat.

Toxic Links: The Potential Negative Impact of the Wrong Strategy

State of Links 2019: SEO Questions that Google should answer

Toxic backlinks are the unnatural links that harm the search rankings of a website. Google’s Penguin update focuses on penalizing the websites that have a bad backlinks profile. If your website has a huge toxic backlinks profile, there are chances that the SEO company you had hired or are still working with is responsible for it. There are companies, which gather spammy links to give their clients a sudden rank boost, which could be harmful in the long run. You may come across several SEO firms which are not updated about the latest industry practices and are not adhering the webmasters guidelines. Associating with these companies for SEO can cause a severe damage to the health of your website.

If you build the wrong links and use risky black hat tactics, you run the risk of having toxic links in your backlink profile that could negatively affect your rankings and organic traffic.

But you need to be aware that using the wrong tactics to build links can have disastrous consequences.

Things to Keep in Mind:

  • If Google determines that you are building links that violate its Webmaster Guidelines, you could see your site impacted by either a manual action or by an algorithmic filter (most likely Google Penguin), both of which can see your site drop rankings.
  • It is not unusual for it to take months, or even years, to recover from such a negative impact.
  • Time to recover is one thing to be aware of when balancing low effort, high-risk tactics with those that are lower risk but need a higher investment in effort.

The most successful strategies deliver sustained success, and you need to be using tactics that aren’t going to see your hard work impacted by a webspam filter or fall foul of a manual review. 

Toxic or say unnatural links can negatively impact the SERP rankings of the website and if Google notices that the site has high number of such links, it can also exclude the site from its database. Non-removal of toxic backlinks can also invite a Penguin penalty.

Link Building Strategies You Need to Know in 2020

Link Building Strategy: Tips for 2018 - Relevance

To build the right links that actually have a positive impact on your organic rankings and traffic, you need to make sure you are using the right strategy. 

But first, you need to be clear on the difference between strategies and tactics and explore each of these.

  • Strategy = what you are going to do.
  • Tactics = how you are going to do it.

Applied to link building, different strategies typically balance different levels of effort and resource with the potential rewards and returns (i.e., the more difficult a tactic is to implement, the better results you will see as it is harder for competitors to do the same), as well as the level of risk surrounding either algorithmic or manual actions taken by Google.

Link Building Survey

20 stats that will change the way you survey your customers ...

A few months ago, 850 SEO professionals revealed the link building strategies and tactics that they are relying on the most, with a wealth of interesting findings shared.

In fact, we were a little surprised that guest posting remains the most popular tactic. 

But, all too often, we rely on the tactics we are the most familiar with and know the best. With that in mind, let’s cast the net a little wider and explore what five different strategies look like before diving deep into the tactics, hopefully introducing you to some new ways to build great links.

Quick-Win Link Building

It is a common misconception that all link building approaches are resource-intensive. That is simply not true, and while many certainly are, if you are looking for tactics that can help you quickly pick up some good links, you will find plenty of quick-win opportunities. 

  • Low hanging fruits are usually the easiest links to get, and that means they are also those that your competitors will also reach for first. (That is not to say you shouldn’t be building these links, because you should.)
  • A quick win strategy often sees a high return for the lower effort you will need to put into the tactics.
  • These wins are what builds a solid foundation and put you on a level playing field with competitors who have already put these tactics to work.

However, you need to be realistic and understand that this strategy is rarely enough on its own, in competitive sectors, to see you land top-spot rankings. 

To take your SEO performance to the next level, you usually need to pivot your strategy towards others once you have landed the quick win opportunities. 

Traditional Link Building

5 Efficient Ways to Optimize Your Link Building - TechWyse 'Rise ...

Traditional link building tactics rely on you manually placing a link through your efforts. As in, the link building is typically in full control of the outcome of the tactics, as opposed to relying upon a journalist or other third party to want to link out to your site.

And that is exactly why these tactics are often referred to as ‘manual link building.’ But let’s get one thing straight; links that you are in control of usually aren’t the highest quality. 

  • In the eyes of Google, any links that are not editorially placed (the decision being taken to link being made by someone else) are manipulative.
  • Therefore, they are likely to either have less of an impact on rankings, be straight up ignored, or, if the tactics are executed at scale, could harm your site’s performance.

That said, these aren’t bad links, as such, and they can absolutely drive benefits such as referral traffic or help to position you as a thought leader, aside from an SEO impact — just be sure to take the time to understand the tactic properly, know the risks associated with them and use carefully. 

Another point to make is that, as with quick-win tactics, a strategy based around traditional link building tactics is likely to be one that can pretty easily be copied by competitors. It is not going to give you a significant competitive advantage.

Link Earning

If you really want to gain this competitive advantage through links, you need to adopt a strategy that will see you earn editorially placed links. 

Link earning tactics are high effort but give a high reward. You need to be prepared to invest time and resources into earning links; doing so will see you land links that competitors will struggle to replicate. 

And let’s not forget that Google has been telling us for years, as part of their Webmaster Guidelines, that:

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.

Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

— Google Webmaster Guidelines (Link Schemes)

When you earn a link, a third party is actively taking the decision to do so, meaning they are linking because there is a reason to do so; that adds value to their own audience. 

These are the true holy grail of link building and the tactics that are essential to success in competitive niches.

Paid Link Building

Despite being a straight-up violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and a tactic that is clearly defined as a link scheme, paid link building is still relatively common in 2020 for the simple reason that it guarantees results. 

Earning links is hard work; there is no denying that. And even manual link building and the wealth of quick-win tactics available still require effort to see results. Some things to remember:

  • Using paid links is, in the opinion of many, lazy link building.
  • Paid link building is a clear manipulation of Google’s algorithm and a low effort yet extremely high-risk tactic. 
  • Most paid for links end up coming from sites that are not topically aligned, that have a high count of outbound links, and are generally low quality. 
  • Aside from this risk, don’t forget that if you can buy links, so can your competitors. 

There are, of course, a few exceptions to the rule here — those being when earning links to support your SEO strategy isn’t the primary focus, and you are either looking to land referral traffic or build your brand authority and are doing so with sponsored placements and advertorials on quality sites and have either a rel=“nofollow” or rel=“sponsored” attribute in place to prevent negative impact on your search rankings. 

As a general rule though, paid links purely to help increase your rankings should be seen as a no go.

Black Hat Link Building

Black hat link building strategies are often aimed to manipulate search engine rankings and, as we outlined above, often focus on unethical tactics that directly violate Google’s guidelines and utilize those methods defined as being part of a link scheme.

  • There is little, or no, focus on the user, rather, looking to game the algorithm.
  • These tactics usually result in a manual action or algorithmic filter being applied, and, as algorithms continue to develop, they can also see links that don’t trigger such an adjustment and are simply being ignored. 
  • Black hat strategies aren’t sustainable and shouldn’t be considered a viable option to pursue in 2020.

We won’t be sharing or exploring black hat tactics in-depth. We wouldn’t want to give them any exposure as they are not tactics that we believe should be used, especially unless the risks are very well understood.

Common Black Hat Link Building Tactics to Be Aware Of

300+ Free Caution & Warning Vectors - Pixabay

However, it is important that you are aware of the type of tactics that fall under black hat strategies to ensure you can avoid them if they are recommended by anyone you are working with, or you come across while learning more yourself.

Keep aware of the following factors when considering black hat SEO and linkbuilding.

  • Paid links that pass PageRank
  • Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
  • Large-scale article marketing and guest-posting campaigns that use keyword-rich anchor text
  • Low-quality directories that exist solely to build links from
  • Keyword-rich links that are embedded within widgets on other people’s websites
  • Links obtained from hacked sites
  • Links built using automated programs or services
  • Requiring links as part of a Terms of Service or contract
  • Comment spam
  • Widely distributed footer or sidebar links

Quick-Win Link Building Tactics

Try out these tactics below if you are looking for low effort, high reward tactics that won’t take much time or resource investment to implement.

They are all valuable tactics that make sense to focus some of your efforts on due to their ease to obtain.

1. Broken Link Building

target url error example to find broken links

This strategy involves finding relevant pages in your industry that could link out to you and that have broken outbound links. You can reach out and suggest that the broken link is updated to point to a relevant piece of content on your site.

A tried and tested link building tactic that is really easy to get started with, and that can drive some quick-win results is broken link building. What are broken links? Simply put, they are links that do not work and won’t lead you to the intended webpage.

A real quick way of doing this is to monitor your competitors’ backlink profile for broken links, and you can learn how to do this with the SEMrush backlink audit tool in this guide to finding a competitor’s broken backlinks

2. Reclaim Lost & Broken Links

Over time, links get lost or broken for various reasons that are totally out of your control. 

It could be that an author updates a piece of content and removes the link, that it simply gets lost during a site update or even that the page becomes a 404 or is 301 redirected.

It could even be that a page on your site that has links pointing to it becomes a 404. And links pointing to a 404 page won’t be counted as part of Google’s ranking algorithm.

For whatever reason, you need to monitor your site’s lost and broken links and take action to reclaim them:

  • Reach out to your original contact at a site and try and get a link added back in or fixed when the issue is their end.
  • If you find that a page on your site has become a 404 and is creating broken links, either redirect this URL to the most suitable page, put the original page live again, or reach out and ask for the link target to be updated.

You can find and monitor broken and lost backlinks with the SEMrush backlink audit tool.

3. Unlinked Brand Mentions

backlink audit tool for link building example

Most businesses find themselves mentioned in the press from time to time for one of many different reasons, with some natural references and others coming about as a result of your PR team’s efforts.

It is not uncommon for this coverage not to link and to just be a brand mention, but it is often easy to see this turned into a link with only minimal effort.

The hard work of securing coverage in the first place has already been done.

You can find brand mentions using the SEMrush Brand Monitoring tool to receive notifications whenever someone mentions you but hasn’t linked to your site.

You can then politely email the person who mentioned you and ask them to add a link in, making sure you demonstrate how the link adds value to their readers — this will help make their decision easier. 

You won’t always get a link added, but for only minimal effort, those that you do manage to land with this tactic make it worth your while. 

4. Link Repositioning

A great tactic that comes recommended by Ross Tavendale in his Weekly Wisdom on technical link building — this is link repositioning.

This is not a tactic that is often talked about, but one that can be utilized relatively easily and help to make your existing links work harder.

Quite simply, analyze the links pointing to your homepage and pull down any that talk about specifics of the products or services that you offer. Ones that would be more suited to linking to an internal page in your site, rather than the homepage.

As Ross recommended:

What I would do is look at all of the links pointing to my home page and analyze that content to see if any of that is actually about our blue widgets.

Some of it probably is.

I would contact those people who have written about my blue widgets, and I would say, “Hey, you have linked to the home page. Thank you so much. You are an absolute legend, but it is a bad user experience. People are clicking, going to the homepage, and they can’t see what you have just written about my blue widget. So, can we get them to point to this one?”

And most of the time people are nice enough to update the link and actually put it to the landing page.

— Ross Tavendale

This is also a great tactic if you launch a series of regionally focused sites, having previously had just one global site. 

Let’s say you launch a new website for your business that targets customers in the UK. Analyze your link profile and look for domains, then reach out and ask for these links to be updated to your new regional site. 

5. Association & Membership Links

Are you paying to be a member of an industry association such as your local Chamber of Commerce?

If so, such organizations often showcase and link out to their members, and if you are not already listed, it usually only takes an email to request that you’re added. 

6. Supplier Links

If you sell other people’s products, there is a good chance that your suppliers and manufacturers link out to retailers from their own websites, and these can be really quick win links to attain.

Pull together a list of all of your manufacturers and suppliers and work through their websites to see whether they are linking to stockists and retailers. If they are, are you included? 

Often you will find that these aren’t updated as frequently as they should be, and retailers are missing. If you don’t see your store listed, reach out to your contact at the supplier and ask whether they can facilitate getting you added. 

7. Reverse Image Search Link Reclamation

Example of a reverse image search

Have you created infographics or published bespoke photos as part of your content strategy in the past? 

Perhaps you have got an established industry expert within your business (or your client’s) that is often featured in the press?

Head over to Google Images and run a reverse image search. 

If you find that there are sites that are using your image but haven’t credited you with a link, reach out and ask them to add one it. 

8. Q&A Platform Links

Remember, we said that link building should be as much about focusing upon tactics that send you great referral traffic and help to build your brand as impacting your search rankings?

While these will only land you nofollow links, using Q&A platforms like Quora and Reddit are great ways to build links that send targeted traffic to your site. These links will also help to diversify your link profile.

Get involved in relevant communities on these platforms, and be sure to add value. This isn’t about jumping straight in and adding a link but sharing relevant content and suggestions to help other users who have questions.

Here’s a great guide over at Search Engine Journal from Julia McCoy, where you can learn more about using this tactic as part of your strategy.

9. Internal Linking

This is a slightly different tactic. 

Often when we talk about link building, our efforts are focused solely on building external links, but a real quick-win tactic can be to spend time improving and optimizing your site’s internal linking structure.

You see, internal linking is important to properly distribute PageRank throughout your website, and if you have earned links to certain pages but haven’t maximized the impact of those links by passing authority and link equity to other related pages, you could see some noticeable gains with this tactic.

Internal linking, while it takes time and effort to do properly, is totally in your control and something that you can do today, without any input needed from third parties at all.

Why not check out our step-by-step guide to building an internal linking strategy that works?

Traditional Link Building Tactics

There are tactics that were once widely used and abused that have come under scrutiny in recent years. This is usually because they don’t result in earned links, rather those where the link builder has an active involvement in the placement of the link.

Now don’t get us wrong, these tactics won’t necessarily result in toxic links pointing to your site, far from it.

You just need to understand how to use each one and at what point you should stop scaling the number of links built in this way, as well as considering other benefits that these links can bring. 

1. Directory Submissions

Example of a spammy directory used for link building

There was a time when directories were set up solely as a way to build links. How would this work? Well businesses would submit your website URL and its details on the web in a directory under a particular category

They look something like this:

Pretty spammy, right? 

There is no value here for users, and this site obviously exists just to link out to others. You don’t want to be building links from directories like these. 

But, you shouldn’t dismiss the tactic as it is still a great way to land some great links, especially if you operate in a tight niche or are a local business.

Look for regional specific directories or those that exist within a niche where the primary purpose is to help users to find a suitable business — common sense will usually tell you whether it is worth being featured on.

Just ask yourself, if you were a potential user, would you find it useful? 

If yes, it is probably worth having a link from.

2. Guest Blogging

Guest blogging, also called “guest posting,” is the act of writing content for another company’s website. Generally, guest bloggers write for similar blogs within their industry in order to:

  • Attract traffic back to their website
  • Boost their domain authority using external links to high-authority domains
  • Increase their brand credibility and awareness, and
  • Build relationships with peers in their industry.
showing write for us in the SERPs to help with link building
An example of where to find opportunities for guest blogging

Google’s Matt Cutts announced the death of guest blogging in 2014, but that was in relation to the way the industry was abusing the tactic to build links from article bylines on any site that would take their content.

The tactic remains a great way to earn links in 2020, so long as it is approached in the right way and that you understand it is not a tactic that will scale up massively.

Forget links for a moment, and having your content published on a relevant blog where you share valuable insights and expertise is a great way to build your profile. The fact that you will usually earn a link to back up who you are is an added bonus.

In fact, a quick search on Google using one of a few different operators can reveal a whole host of guest posting opportunities. Here is an example of “write for us”.

Just remember that if you can easily find opportunities to pitch guest posts to, so can your competitors. And that means that any links you do earn might not give you the competitive advantage that other tactics can.

3. Press Release Distribution & Content Syndication

Google has openly said that they ignore links that come from press releases. The reference here was to using press release distribution services that essentially syndicate your content across a number of different sites. 

While this is a tactic that may have had some value once, times have changed, and if you are using PR wire services only to build links, there is a good chance you won’t see any value.

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be pitching out to the press to earn links and coverage, far from it.

4. Blog Comments & Forum Links

You may have noticed that blog comments and forum links are mentioned as types of links that violate Google’s guidelines. 

This is very much another “it depends” tactic. 

Don’t go leaving comments on irrelevant blogs with a link back to your site; that is just straight-up spam, as is leaving links in forum posts that don’t add value.

That said, you can still earn traffic from well thought out and relevant comments and forum posts, but this comes when you approach the tactic as a way to add value to discussions and link only when it adds value. 

5. Reciprocal Links

Reciprocal links — you link to me, and I’ll link to you — are another tactic that is outlined in Google’s definition of link schemes and violations of the guidelines, but that is when it is done at scale.

If you have got an opportunity to link to and send referral traffic to a partner in your industry, and they will do the same in return, it is not going to harm you.

Just don’t go exchanging links without considering relevancy and the context. 

Link Earning Tactics

Earned links are like the holy grail of link building.

Why? Because someone is making a conscious decision to link specifically to your website, rather than anyone else’s. 

Using link earning tactics is a way to gain a competitive advantage and land links that your competitors could only dream of — and that they will struggle to replicate.

These are very much advanced tactics, but ones that deliver the best results if you are prepared to put in the effort to learn how to leverage them for success. 

1. Digital PR

Fast becoming the go-to link building tactic for many SEOs, digital PR came about as a way to earn high authority links from press publications by using PR tactics. 

Quite simply, it is the most effective way to naturally earn significant numbers of high-quality editorial links, at scale, and involves creating engaging linkable content assets and using PR pitching and outreach to persuade journalists to cover these stories in their articles and link back to the source.

But there is more than one way to run a successful digital PR campaign, and we will look at four of the most effective approaches.

Data-Driven Studies

Example of a data set publishers could use for link building

When you build a digital PR campaign around data, you are ensuring that you have got a wealth of engaging stories to pitch to the press. 

The most attractive stories and pitches to journalists are those that include something that they couldn’t easily do themselves. They are busy people, often tasked with writing 7 or 8 articles per day; and that includes sourcing quotes, images, producing copy, and more. 

  • Using data means you are sharing unique stories that are backed by findings from a study or research piece, and journalists absolutely love this.
  • Data sources to use in your campaigns can range from your own internal data through to trusted third-party public data sets, such as those from — the US government’s home of open data.

For inspiration, check out this study into the world’s hardest working musicians by a music college that analyzes tour date data from for the most popular Billboard artists to reveal which artists toured the most and played the higher number of shows.

This digital PR campaign earned links from over 30 publications.


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A few years ago infographics made it really easy to earn links from top-tier press publications. In fact, even simple ‘how to…’ infographics could relatively easily pick up significant numbers of links with just a little bit of outreach effort.

Times have changed, and you are unlikely to see much of an impact with simple advice-led and opinion-led infographics (think how-tos and listicles, etc.), but that doesn’t mean infographics aren’t still effective. 

Things to Remember:

  • There just needs to be a story.
  • The infographic should be used as a simple way to visualize your content in an easy-to-share way. 
  • An infographic is just a format, but when used as a way to tell a story, you can still see success.

As an example, this simple infographic that reveals the potential Instagram earnings of the Too Hot To Handle cast has been featured on top-tier publications, including Daily Mail and OK.


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If you are looking for a way to launch a digital PR campaign that gets people talking, surveys can be a great way to find out the public’s perception of a topic. 

Aligning more to traditional PR tactics, yet still, a way to land coverage and earn links from the press, you can poll the public through platforms such as OnePoll and Pollfish.

Just be sure to write up your findings (and ideally visualize them) as a content asset, rather than simply just pitching out the results as a press release, as a way to ensure you earn links and not just brand mentions.

Interactive Assets & Tools

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If you have the resources to do so, launching interactive assets and tools can be a fantastic way to earn high-quality links from the press in impressive numbers.

Just check out this simple tool that lets you calculate your potential earnings as an Instagram influencer that has been linked to more than 300 times.

When you create an engaging, interactive tool or piece of content, you essentially making a link an essential part of the story.

Imagine a journalist mentioning a great tool but not linking to it. It wouldn’t make sense, would it? By making links a vital part of the story, you are working to maximize links and minimize brand mentions. 

2. Resource Link Building

resource page link building example

Sometimes, you don’t need to create assets, studies, or data-driven campaigns to earn links.

If you can identify where your business itself can add value to your audience, you can leverage this to build links from resource pages, with great examples being those from travel and tourism boards, universities, and local governments.

Competitor analysis can often help you to find resources that are linking to your competitors but not to you, and you can then take this one step further to search for similar opportunities yourself.

See this page of career resources from Oxford Universities? 

It includes a number of external links to job boards and recruitment specialists, making it a perfect target for those working in that sector. 

You just need to make sure that the link that you propose adds value to the page, that could be either through a content piece or guide or simply your business’ core offering.

3. Case Studies & Testimonials

testimonial link building example

Using case studies and testimonials can be a great way to earn links simply by writing a short summary of why you love the product or service.

This tactic is often based around existing relationships and offering to share your thoughts on their offering to help them to sell more or even just giving their permission to feature you, but in doing so, you will often land a link in return, with a great example being Squarespace’s customer testimonial pages.

4. HARO & #journorequest

If you are not monitoring HARO (Help a Reporter Out) and the #journorequest hashtag on Twitter, you could be missing out on opportunities to land press coverage (and links) for your client or business. 

Every day, journalists and content creators turn to these platforms to find sources for their articles.

Submit a Query - Reporter Center - Help a Reporter Out

They are looking for businesses just like yours to add value and expert-led insights into their content, and it is a tactic that you should be taking advantage of.

With HARO, you will receive three emails each day, Monday to Friday, that include categorized requests (or those just from a category you have requested to receive notifications for).

If you believe that you could provide a great response to the request, go ahead and send it over. 

You won’t find all of your responses are used, but it is a relatively low-effort tactic that can drive big results in terms of landing authority links. Just make sure you are only responding to requests where you can truly provide expert comment.

#journorequest works in a similar way, rather with journalists using the hashtag on Twitter to obtain sources.

To learn more about how to use HARO to build links with success, here is a great guide for you to check out.

5. Newsjacking

Reactive PR, or as it is also known newsjacking, is a technique used by PRs which involves reacting to breaking news stories quickly, and spotting opportunities where you or your client can provide credible comment on that topic or story. 

The term “newsjacking” was popularized by David Meerman Scott and basically involves brands ‘piggybacking’ off news stories to direct attention to a piece of content, or to earn coverage or links for a brand’s homepage. 

Newsjacking is all about being quick to react and ensuring that you are not trying to shoehorn a comment or piece of content to relate to a news story that isn’t relevant to your brand.

6. The Skyscraper (& Reverse Skyscraper) Technique

The Skyscraper Technique is one that was coined by Brian Dean of Backlinko, and it has gained immense traction within the SEO and link building community in recent years.

You can read a full tutorial on how to use the tactic here, but it involves three steps:

  • Finding link-worthy content that has performed well.
  • Producing a piece of content that is even better than the original.
  • Reaching out to people who covered it and asking them to link to your improved resource.

It is based around creating the best piece of content on a topic and leveraging it to steal links from those whose content you have improved upon.  

Brian has even produced a great video to walk you through the steps of using the tactic.

But what is not often covered when people talk about the Skyscraper Technique is what could be referred to as the reverse Skyscraper technique. 

It is based on a similar principle, but rather than finding content that performed well, why not look for content that didn’t perform well but that has the potential to. Essentially, pieces that could be great, but that were executed badly. 

Then, go ahead and create the best piece of content around this topic and tell relevant webmasters and publishers about it.

7. Content Round-Ups

Have you created a great post as part of your content marketing strategy?

It is not uncommon to find content round-ups in pretty much any industry. In fact, there are even monthly round-ups in the digital PR and SEO industry, such as Content, Curated, and The Weekly SEO.

Essentially, round-ups are just lists of the best content in a sector over a period, and they are often pretty easy to find using search operators on Google, such as:

  • “Keyword” + intitle:“weekly roundup”
  • “Keyword” + intitle:“roundup”
  • “Keyword” + inurl:roundup
  • “Keyword” + “best blogs of the week”

You will need to make sure you have already created great content that is worth being featured and reach out to suggest it for inclusion. 

8. Interviews

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If you have got an industry expert within your business or your client’s business, securing interviews with industry-specific publications can be a great way to not only earn a relevant link but also to position them as a thought leader within the space.

Here is a great example from Small Business Trends for you to get an idea as to how the tactic works in practice.

Google search operators are a great help in finding these opportunities and don’t just limit yourself to written interviews. Videos and podcasts are also great and will often be accompanied with a link back to the guest’s website. 

9. Expert Round-Ups

Example of expert roundup

Despite being a tactic that was done to death a few years back, expert round-ups can still be a great way to earn links.

You will need to round up a series of experts within your industry (it is almost like a reverse content round-up, where you are the one creating the content) and pose a series of questions to them and turn it into an engaging piece of content that collates the opinions and insights of industry leaders.

Once you hit publish, go ahead and let everyone who contributed know that it is live, and pitch key headlines and insights to the press and other relevant publishers. 

You will naturally find that some of the experts who contributed will link to it from their ‘as seen in the press page or similar, and there’s also often interesting angles and debates that industry publications love. 

Here is a great example where experts shared their Google Shopping tips that earned 13 links. 

So long as you choose the right experts, who have some level of credibility, it is still a great tactic to use, while also helping to position your brand as thought leaders. 

Paid Link Building Tactics

To be clear, any links that are paid for violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines unless they are marked using either rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attributes to prevent them from passing PageRank. We have already highlighted the risks of paid links, which are used as a lazy tactic, and we won’t be sharing these here.

That said, there is still an opportunity to use paid links to build your brand and earn referral traffic, which is what these tactics are intended for.

1. Sponsored Blog Posts

Let’s say there is an influential blogger in your industry who has made a name for themselves and earns thousands of page views every month from your target audience.

It is unlikely that they are going to link to you (at least upon your request) for free. Why would they? They have spent time building an audience, and they are not going to give that exposure away for nothing.

You might want to work with influencers in this way to publish a sponsored piece of content or blog post. Essentially, where they will feature and link to your business in return for payment.

  • This can be great at exposing you to new audiences and earning referral traffic.
  • Make sure that the link uses the rel=”sponsored” attribute to clearly mark that it is a paid collaboration.
  • Advertorials with top-tier news publications work in the same way.
  • These aren’t links for SEO, rather links for exposure and brand building.

2. Gifted Product Reviews

You are maybe not aware, but in the eyes of Google, links that are earned as a result of a product being gifted to a reviewer are classed as being paid. 

Whilst there is no money changing hands, there is an implied transaction to the value of the product. 

Similar to sponsored blog posts, gifting products to influencers can be a great way to expose your brand to new audiences, just make sure that any links include a rel=”sponsored” attribute. 

3. Sponsorship

Sponsoring a local sports team, meetup event, or conference, as an example, is also a tactic that is fairly commonly used to build links.

It is unusual for sponsored not to be featured and linked to in these instances, and again they fall into a grey area.

Just make sure that the event or organization that you’re sponsoring aligns with your business, and you will enjoy benefits aside from just a link, but if you are only sponsoring as a way to land a link, you need to ask yourself whether that investment could be better spent elsewhere, especially if the links you will get don’t topically align.

4. Scholarships

scholarship links

Offering scholarships as a way to build links is another tactic that’s been abused and, indirectly, it is a paid link building tactic. 

It simply involves putting together a reasonably-sized scholarship fund (think $1,000 +) and listing the requirements and offering on a dedicated page on your site, before reaching out to colleges and universities that list current scholarships and hoping that they link out. 

It is popular because it is a proven way to land links from educational institutions and those you wouldn’t normally get links from, but it is one that has been abused and overused in recent years. 

This fits very much into the ‘grey hat’ category as, whilst you are not paying directly for a link, it is the primary reason why you are setting up a scholarship fund. 

Just be sure not to abuse the tactic, and it can still help you to build some great links. 

Starbucks’ scholarship page, as an example, has earned links from over 700 unique domains.

How to Use Outreach for Link Building

In almost all link building strategies that you will use, you are going to need to use email outreach as a way to open up opportunities and discussions and to actually land the links.

From pitching to the press to running an outreach campaign to land guest posting opportunities, it is all different variants on the same process. 

To truly master link building, you will need to get good at outreach (or work with someone who is).

What is Outreach?

Outreach for link building is simply when you identify people in your industry (be that influencers, journalists, bloggers or webmasters) that might be interested in linking to you and reaching out to them to build a relationship and explore opportunities for them to cover your content.

But content can mean many different things.

It might be that you’re outreaching to offer exclusive interviews with your company’s CEO, your latest data-led digital PR campaign, or to pitch guest post ideas. 

Outreach is simply the process of finding and connecting with those potential prospects who might link to you. 

Top Tips for Successful Outreach

There are a few key elements of successful outreach and, while it is a detailed topic that’s covered in-depth in guides like this, you need to focus on:

  • Finding and identifying the right prospects.
  • Writing engaging subject lines that see your emails actually get opened.
  • Writing convincing outreach emails that encourage the recipient to take action.

It is a process that easily lends itself to testing out approaches of your own, and that should be tailored to the specific link building tactic you are using.

Always be sure to personalize outreach emails and clearly outline the action that you want them to take is.

Are you wanting them to add a link to an existing article, cover your story for the publication they write for, accept your guest post proposal? Be sure to make it clear.

In fact, a 2019 study by Fractl highlighted the value that publishers see in pitches:

publisher survey
Study conducted by Fractl

Outreach is very much a tactic that is vital to helping you build and earn great links, it just takes time to perfect your approach.

However, one thing that underpins the success of any outreach campaign is the quality of your outreach list. It is important that you are prepared to put in the time and effort to find the right prospects, using tactics such as:

  • Analyzing your competitors’ backlink profile.
  • Finding journalists who covered other stories in your industry through Google news.
  • Using a media database to find relevant prospects.

Building a smaller, but targeted, outreach list often drives better results than larger lists that often feel like you’re throwing as much as possible against a wall and hoping something sticks.

Do your research and know the way that your outreach pitch adds value to the recipient. 

3 Easy Ways to Discover Link Building Opportunities

We have been through a whole load of link building tactics, and hopefully, you have now got some ideas on how to use these to build great links.

But how do you get started finding opportunities?

1. Using Google Search Operators

Whether you are looking to use guest posting, link round-ups, or even niche directories, Google is often the best place to start.

You will not need any tools, and you can usually find tonnes of opportunities in just minutes.

You can then use search operators to return the results and opportunities that you Are looking to find.

Looking to write guest posts? Try these:

  • [keyword] intitle:“become a contributor”
  • [keyword] intitle:”write for us”
  • [keyword] intitle:”guest post”
  • [keyword] inurl:”writer-guidelines”

Want to find content round-ups to share your latest piece with? Try these:

  • [keyword] intitle:”round up”
  • [keyword] intitle:”weekly round up”
  • [keyword] “best blogs of the month”

Or to find resource link opportunities, try these:

  • [keyword] (intitle:”resources”| inurl:resources)
  • [keyword] intitle:”useful links”
search operators for link building

2. Run a Backlink Gap Analysis

You can use the SEMrush backlink gap tool to find opportunities to land links that your competitors have but that you don’t.

backlink gap

In fact, it is a great way to identify the links that could be helping your competitors to rank and, if there is a link in place to them, there is a good chance you will also be able to grab a link from the same site.

Add up to five competitors to the tool, and you will even see recommendations made to help you analyze more links.

backlink gap results

You will then be served a goldmine of insights into your competitors’ link profile, including those who have earned the most links, the Authority Score (AS) of each, and which sites have landed links from the domain.

This is a really quick and easy way to find prospects where you have got an increased chance of landing a link, as well as giving you the insights needed to reverse engineer your competitors’ strategies to figure out the tactics they are using to build links. 

3. Find Your Competitors’ Most Linked-To Pages 

Whether you are looking to use the Skyscraper technique to create an awesome piece of content and steal links from your competitors’ page, having the insights around the types of content that your competitors (and others in your industry, even if they are not a direct competitor) are using to earn links is valuable to help shape your own strategy.

If others in your sector are using data-driven digital PR assets, you should be doing the same to attain links of a similar quality (or better), as an example.

You can find the pages on other sites that have been linked to the most using our Backlink Analytics tool, heading to the indexed pages tab and sort by the number of referring domains.

You will now see the site’s most linked-to pages. 

how to find most linked to pages

You need to use common sense and skip past ‘policy’ pages, and the like, but it offers some insights that you could be using in your campaigns. 

Metrics to Measure the Success of Link Building

The success of a link building campaign can look like different things to different people.  

It all comes down to the goals of your campaign. However, it is important that you understand the metrics that should be considered when setting these goals.

It is dangerous to focus on the raw numbers of links built as you will find that this sacrifices quality. And, you need to be using competitor insights to determine the link gap between you and others and make sure you are building the right links that actually increase your rankings.

But when looking at metrics, you want to consider using one or more the following:

  • Authority Score (SEMrush’s own metric that grades the overall quality of a website and tells you how impactful a backlink from a site can be for your SEO).
  • The ratio of follow to nofollow links (Ideally, your link profile will contain far more follow links than nofollow links).
  • Topical relevance (How closely aligned to your business are the sites that you’re landing links from? Links that come from closely aligned content are typically more value).
  • Unique referring domains (You don’t want to be just earning links from the same domains all the time and should focus on increasing the number of unique referring sites in your link profile).
  • Toxic links (This is another SEMrush metric that indicates whether a link could pose a risk to your site’s rankings. You ideally don’t want any toxic links in your link profile, but if you do, you will need to clean them up).

You may also want to consider goals such as brand exposure, links, and placements on certain publications, referral traffic, and more — it is all about measuring those things that matter to you as a business. 

Go Ahead and Start Building Better Links!

Now that you have been given detailed insights into the link building tactics that work and those that do not in 2020, it is time to get started. 

If you have never built links before, hopefully, you are now eager to get started and are looking forward to landing your first link. If you have been link building for years, hopefully, you have been inspired to try out a new tactic.

No one ever said that link building was easy because it is not, and the tactics that you should be using continue to evolve.

But we hope that by having a whole host of approaches at hand, you can ensure you are building a diverse link profile and maximizing opportunities that come from all different angles. 

Become a better link builder, and you will be in demand. It is the tactic that most SEOs find the most difficult, and any proven successes you can showcase make you all the more valuable to potential clients or employers. 

Happy link building!

2 thoughts on “Link Building for SEO: Which Strategies Work in 2020 (and Which Don’t)

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