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A Step by Step Guide to Succeeding at the Hardest Part of SEO

It’s commonly accepted that building quality backlinks to your website is one of the most important and yet one of the hardest, most frustrating parts of SEO.After being in this line of work for over 5 years now, mostly on my own content websites, I thought it’s time to share a few things that have worked for me. So, I’ve put together a series of methods with detailed steps that can help you become a master at building real links in a completely white-hat way.

General Outreach

General Outreach is mentioned first because it contains some fundamental techniques and tips that can be used for any outreach and also the methods that follow.

This is the simplest method of link building but will take time, effort and will generally have a low success rate. However, I have a few tips I’ve used to help speed up the process and will hopefully increase the number of links you get, along with being vital for the next steps.

Overview

This method involves finding appropriate sites that you would be happy to link to you. Then reaching out to them to see if they’re willing to add a link to one of their existing posts. Sometimes they’ll be happy to do it. A lot of the time they will want something in return. If they do you’ll have to decide if you want to exchange something for that link.

A note on buying backlinks — buying backlinks will make your site liable to be penalised by Google. Does that stop people doing it? No. Does it reduce the effectiveness? For many people that answer is a resounding no. Buying backlinks is still one of the most effective ways of gaining backlinks today but do the benefits outweigh the risks for you? I’d be safe and try to stay away from buying links if you can.

The Process

The first step of this method is to build a huge spreadsheet of contacts that could be a viable fit for your site. This spreadsheet can then be used later for a number of different outreach methods.

I set myself a series of conditions that the site should meet for it to be placed in my spreadsheet.

First, it must be relevant to my niche. This means that the main content on the prospective site must be similar to my site. The less relevant the less likely it will be to make it on to the spreadsheet. For example, if my website was in the niche of outdoor furniture, I would be happy to put a gardening website on the spreadsheet but probably not a sports website. Ultimately this can be left to your judgement, but I hope that gives you something to work with.

To find websites like this I use Semrush (affiliate link to a 14-day free trial). You can also use Ahrefs and other similar software or even just Google. But dedicated software will make your life much easier.

I’ll take a couple of websites that I have found naturally, either through manual research or just from general knowledge of the niche and put them straight into Semrush. Then Semrush will give me the main organic competitors in a nicely formatted list. 

This can sometimes contain thousands of websites that are similar to the type of website I want to gain a backlink from. I will either manually go through the top 100 or so of these if I’m looking for the highest quality links. Or if I just want to save as much data as possible, I’ll export them directly from Semrush and save them into a spreadsheet. 

I then repeat this a few times for different websites and I’ve got the start of a very valuable database of potential backlinks.

If this doesn’t produce the results I’m looking for I can always go a bit deeper into the Semrush data. They have a great backlink tool that gives up to date information of all the websites linking back to the site you search for. 

This is a great way to find additional sites that are willing to link to relevant content in your niche and that probably doesn’t come up in the direct competitors section. 

Again all this information is saved into a spreadsheet so I have the data in an easily accessible form that I can manipulate how I want.

When I have a nice list of (hopefully) thousands of websites that might be willing to link to me I can start to think about getting the links themselves.

Finding Emails and Contact Pages

For this, you will need to find an email address or a contact page/form for the websites. In the past, I have used Hunter.io which has worked fantastically well but can get a little pricey if you’re doing a lot of requests a month.

Another trick I have used to speed up the process of going to websites’ contact pages, is to write a very simple Python script that appends ‘/contact/’ to the URL of each website. I do this to all the URLs I have saved in my spreadsheet and save the new contact URLs in a new column. So, instead of going to a site on my list and trying to find the contact page, I have a way of going directly to the contact page itself. For hundreds of sites. Whilst this method definitely doesn’t work every time, and you could do it manually, having a simple script up my sleeve has saved me hours of mind-numbing work. Something that I think is very important when working on backlink building.

If you’ve never used Python before don’t worry. Al Sweigart now has his brilliant book, Automate the Boring Stuff with Python available for free! This is a fantastic book for beginners and provides many examples of how useful Python can be to create very useful little scripts such as the one I mentioned above. 

Sending Cold Emails

So at this point, it’s time to start sending emails. Cold emails are hard and there are many ways to do this. This is a very rough template of what has worked for me:

Dear <name>,

My name is <you name> and I run <my website>. I think you’ve done a great job with <one of their articles>, I got a lot of value out of it. I wrote something similar that I think your users would love which will add even more value for them.

You can find the article here <insert your article link in the word ‘here’>

Feel free to use it for whatever you like!

Kind regards,

<you name>

I like to keep it as short and succinct as possible. 

The first thing I do when receiving cold emails is to do a quick scan. If it’s too long with many links, it’s straight in the trash. 

I also don’t go overboard on complimenting them. I feel this can come across as very disingenuous if done wrong and even when done right it rarely feels natural. A quick note on how you got some value from it seems to work well. I also like to let them know they can use it for whatever they like. I’m not explicitly asking for a backlink here, I like them to feel as if it’s completely up to them, on their terms.

I’ve experimented with more pushy cold emails and with even less pushy emails. This seems to be a nice balance for the niches that I’ve worked in. Give it a go and tweak it for you, your business and the niches that you deal with.

Sometimes the people I have reached out to will put a link into their content, never tell me about it and I’ll find out about it through Semrush or Ahrefs. Great! 

Other times they tell me they’ll link it and ask if I want some say in where it goes or what the anchor text will be. Even better! 

But most of the time they will either not reply or ask for something in return, usually money. That is the world of general outreach when building backlinks — you have to be ready for a lot of rejection. Paying for links will massively increase your success rate but it’s up to you if you want to risk paying.

When I get into a position where people are willing to post my link and where they allow me some say in where and how it is placed, there are a few things I like to ask for.

  1. A Dofollow link — This is obvious, we want Google to know that the site is linking to us and a Dofollow link is the best way to do that. If they are adamant on a Nofollow I’ll still take it though. A few Nofollows can round out the link profile nicely. 
  2. Content-based link — This means the link should be in the text of the article. No spammy links in footers or site-wide sidebars. A nice natural link in the main text where it will be most relevant and useful to people that will read their article.
  3. Ideally a DA of at least 20 — The higher the better! But I will also take what I can get. If it’s a nice natural link on a DA 15 site with highly engaged traffic linking to my DA 20 site, I’d take that over a spammy DA 30 site any day.
  4. Real search traffic — Building from the last point I like to try and make sure real people are coming to this site and actually using it. Not only does Google like that better, but it also can add up to a nice flow of traffic by itself if done right.

And that’s the first method.

It’s a grind and has a low conversion rate (unless you pay) but it’s the simplest, lowest barrier to entry form of link building. However, it uses some fundamental techniques that you’ll need for any outreach and link building. Using some of the tips and tools mentioned will speed things up and bump up those conversions.

Skyscraper Technique

A lot has been said about the Skyscraper Technique in the past so I won’t go into huge amounts of detail. If you want a super thorough guide to it then check out Brian Dean’s original guide from 2015. However, I believe that this technique has additional benefits that most people aren’t taking advantage of. 

It basically breaks down into 3 steps:

  1. Find content in your niche that already has a lot of backlinks pointing towards it.
  2. Create something similar but way better.
  3. Reach out to the people that linked to the original piece of content and get them to link to your piece instead.

Step 1:

Finding the content that meets the requirements for the Skyscraper Technique can be difficult. It needs to have a lot of backlinks pointing to it, I like to see at least 50, and it needs to be something that you are able to make notably better.

During the keyword research phase for any project, I tend to make note of any posts that meet these requirements or look as if they would meet the requirements. These posts go straight into a spreadsheet, like everything else!

If you haven’t done this, that’s fine. Another technique I use is to jump onto Semrush (affiliate link to a 14-day free trial). Semrush helps find ideas through the keyword tool. Just put in a keyword that seems like it could be a good informational post and then Semrush will give you lots of similar ideas. 

For example, if your niche is mattresses then you could do a post on the science of sleep. Putting ‘sleep science’ into Semrush gives a huge range of similar keywords about how sleep works, dreams and more. These can then be used to help find articles or other content that would be good for the Skyscraper technique.

A good start, but we can do better!

Ahrefs provides many tools that are perfect for this kind of research. You can put your newly found keyword into the ‘content explorer’ section of Ahrefs where a series of filters can find the most appropriate content out there. For example, you can set the ‘referring domains’ to a minimum of 50 and sort by the highest amount of links. You then get all the data you’ll ever need. 

If the content that has the most links pointing to it is 3 years out of date that’s a perfect opportunity to make an up to date version and get those links!

Step 2:

There are a few ways that you can make better content. 

Length, freshness, design and depth. 

It is usually recommended to improve just one of these, I would aim to improve all of these if possible. 

A longer piece of content that is more up to date, that looks better and is more detailed is sure to provide considerably more value than the other piece of content.

The actual content could be a post, an infographic or even an ebook. Whatever provides more value to the user. Use your knowledge of the niche to choose what’s best.

Actually creating this content can be difficult but there are freelancers out there that can help along with many simple tools like Canva to help with any graphics work you may choose to do.

Step 3:

Reaching out. If you’ve used Ahrefs for some of the research then you can easily see the sites that are linking to the piece of content. Semrush also does this. Simply put the URL of the piece of content into the Semrush search bar and it’ll show all the site linking back to it in the backlinks area. 

If you’ve read all of the previous section you’ll know a couple of tips to find emails easily. Just use those techniques to find email addresses or contact pages and send a similar email to what I outlined in the first part.

But don’t stop there, send your new content to everyone in your spreadsheet and share with as many people as you can. This isn’t just an SEO piece, you can use Social Media and virality to help here as well. If you have created a quality digital asset then it can be used in many ways to promote your business. 

For example, I’ve done this entire process on 2 large scale promotions and one had the side benefit of going semi-viral on Pinterest. Infographics regularly do well on Pinterest and this one was just right. It improved my Pinterest impressions and followers by about 10x! This, of course, helped with traffic to my site as well and I usually get a steady 10% of my traffic for free from Pinterest.

Creating a digital asset that people will get genuine value from can return far more than you initially expect.

In this case, my simple infographic ended up getting me over 500,000 Pinterest impressions in 18 days. Not bad.

Both of the mentioned Skyscraper promotions ended up with around 15–20 links of varying DAs. In both cases, it was well worth the time invested and I believe this is still one of the best ways to get genuine, quality backlinks and in some cases, far more!

Relationship Building

The third way that I have used to successfully acquire backlinks is through building relationships with owners of blogs and product sites.

I explained a very simple, but effective technique of doing this in my post about how I made $150,000 from my bedroom. In this post, I explained how building a content website that was monetised through affiliate links opens up opportunities to review and compare products. Whenever I featured a product of a relatively small business I would make sure to reach out to someone at the business, ideally the owner, saying what I thought of the product and then link them the post in which I mention it. 

The email was very similar to the template I mentioned in the first section of this post.

This was especially effective if the post mentioned the product in an especially good light as that would incentivise the owner to showcase my review/mention. 

This technique managed to get me multiple backlinks on that content site and even led to some very solid relationships which allowed me to gain far more than just a backlink. I received thousands of dollars worth of free products to review and even managed to host a giveaway that brought in multiple backlinks itself. And best of all, it took a matter of minutes each time.

So how do you do this?

Well if you’ve completed the first step you will likely have a long list of potential sites to reach out to in your spreadsheet, maybe some of them you’ve already reached out to. This is a great start and sometimes can lead to a solid relationship by itself.

But you will also need to be proactive and genuine. When you reach out to anyone they’re going to be on their guard and wonder why someone is cold emailing them. 

Similar to the template I gave in the first section, it’s important to introduce yourself, offer praise and ideally give them something for free. Most of the time this can be something that you have created, a post for example, but that you know they will find useful. Positive review posts, mentions of how you use their product in your everyday life, pointing out a typo or error in their post or something similar is great to include.

Then it comes down to being consistent, building the relationship and working together. If you think of this as a relationship-building goal rather than a link building goal you’ll be one step closer straight away.

In such a digital world and occupation, it’s sometimes the human touch that can be most effective. 

How Not to Build Backlinks

A quick look at something that I still see regularly recommended, but that I find to be a very inefficient use of time. 

Guest Posts.

Whilst Guest Posts still seem to be effective for people, I’ve found them to be a rather questionable method for getting backlinks. Many times I’ve found that website owners will charge a lot for guest posts due to the additional work required. In addition to this, there are the upfront time and effort that it takes to research and write a post to consider. Also if you’re going for smaller DA sites, purely for the link and are willing to pay, you may as well just pay a smaller amount for just the link.

However, at a higher level, guest posts can be beneficial. I believe they work best when already having a relationship established with the owners/editors of a website and the site in question having a solid regular traffic base that you expect will want to visit your site. I don’t think guest posting for the sake of just a link is worth it. Your time is better used elsewhere.

Conclusion

White-hat link building is hard! If you want to take a short cut and use a bit of cash to speed things along by buying links you will have to face the risks of doing so. 

But either way, it requires a lot of work, grinding through websites and spreadsheets and will sometimes feel like there is no reward. But just remember that with a consistent, informed and deliberate approach it will be worth it. 

In addition to that feel free to use some of the techniques and tools mentioned above to speed up and streamline the process until you have your own pipeline to build quality links. 

Good luck!

 

Date: 05/07/2020

Location: Peterborough, UK