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Developing an effective link building strategy

James Cook

Posted by James Cook

Co-author: Ron Carandang

11 March 2024

If you’re investing in SEO for the long term, link building is an aspect that you need to consider. While link building strategies have evolved over the years, Google still uses links as a way to discover website content and judge quality and authority.

Link building can be an overwhelming area of SEO to jump into. There’s a lot of noise on the topic in general, and plenty of contradictory information regarding best practices, strategies and how to measure success. In this guide, we’ll provide an overview of the current state of play when it comes to modern-day link building as well as ways to devise link building strategies that are tangible to your success measuring and adhering to KPIs that matter.

Does link building still matter in 2024?

The short answer is yes, although perhaps a better way of framing this question is “do links still matter in 2024?”, the answer to which is undoubtedly yes. As we’ve alluded to already, Google discovers websites and content by continually crawling links across the web. Google’s PageRank algorithm is still a major factor in determining the quality of a webpage and ranking it on search results accordingly.

While PageRank has been manipulated in a negative manner in the past, the main change over the years has been the focus on backlink quality over quantity, such as in 2012’s Penguin update. Other modern-day SEO concepts such as matching search intent and offering contextual relevance in relation to the search query inputted by the user also matter in contemporary link building. 

Many third-party tools have their own metrics for determining this authority level by assessing the number of high-quality links pointing to a certain webpage. This is sometimes called “page authority score” or “domain rating” if on an entire website level. While such third-party metrics aren’t endorsed by Google and should be taken with a pinch of salt, you will invariably discover that many top search results for certain popular terms across different industries will score highly here.

There will of course be instances where your business or service features a piece of content that solves a specific user problem or covers a certain angle not currently saturated in search results that ranks well without the need for heavy link building investment. This can be achieved if your team are able to spot gaps in your content and utilise smart keyword research techniques to inform content approaches.

However, a significant part of your revenue or lead-generating pages will rely on more competitive search keywords where the related search results will be much tighter. This is where link building really matters. 

Additionally, link building directly through to the homepage, as well as to content that sits in subfolders, will help to boost the authority of the domain and that subfolder, as a whole.

Setting link building goals and KPIs

As with any SEO-related strategy, the setting of clear, relevant and realistic KPIs should feature from the start. The KPI phase is often where many misconceptions and misunderstandings over link building arise, which can lead to frustrations when a campaign hasn’t delivered what it was expected to.

You may encounter scenarios where a fixed sum may be set aside for link building spend on a monthly or periodical basis with goals such as “number of links” or “X number of links from websites with a domain authority of 40 or above”. While such targets can be a useful starting point, it’s important to communicate that it’s very hard to achieve fixed link numbers from month to month, so approximate targets – with numbers that can ebb and flow throughout the year – is a much more realistic goal to agree on.

Some link building suppliers may even guarantee a set number of links from certain sources over a specific period. This approach should be avoided, as link acquisition methods are likely to involve the practice of paying for these backlinks which may run the risk of landing you in hot water further down the line.  

With this in mind, businesses shouldn’t be focusing just on backlink volumes when it comes to KPI setting for a link building campaign. We’ll delve into success measurement for link building later on, though here are some key metrics to consider:

How to decide on target keywords in a link building strategy 

As a business, you will no doubt know what pages and associated keywords are important in generating conversions. An e-commerce website selling outdoor clothing will expect good performance on clearcut transactional keywords such as “hiking jackets for sale” or “hiking boots” or “thick winter socks for hiking”, for example. 

However, the trick behind a good link building strategy is to target keywords, and subsequently build content around, search terms where you think you will gain ground and generate more leads from. Search results around commercial terms are incredibly competitive, so you will need to devise a target keyword set that you can realistically perform well for that also ties your link building content thematically. 

Assess current performance

Take a look at your current search rankings across your core commercial terms. What’s performing well in terms of traffic and conversions and what could do with seeing some improvement? Are there any keywords that are important to your business that are ranking in position ten on Google or onwards that may require some further backlinks or associated content to propel them further? Is your content offering around these search terms as best as you can make it but are they still struggling to creep into the top spots? This is where link building can play an important role. There may also be an argument to continue work on search rankings that are already performing well too, just to ensure that you’re staying on top of your competitors.

How are other marketing channels performing?

Particularly when it comes to paid search, consider what search terms are driving the most leads? Are there any interesting trends you can glean from paid search campaigns when it comes to assessing paid search keywords performance? Are there any lessons that can be learned from search terms that might be unperforming unexpectedly, and how can the landing page content being used for this help to inform your link building strategy moving forward? Cross collaboration and data sharing across other marketing disciplines can really help refine your approach when it comes to target keywords and content for link building strategies.       

What are your competitors doing?

Once you’ve got your list of keywords to go for in your link building campaign, the final step in confirming your approach is assessing the competitive landscape. Look at where your competitors rank for your target terms and have a look into the backlink profiles of these webpages. Based on the number of high-quality referring domains going to their website or indeed to individual pages, is this something you think your team can feasibly outperform over the course of your link building campaign? 

Use Ahrefs to compare the rate at which your domain has gained new backlinks over the past year, compared to your top competitors, to highlight those competitors that require a deeper link analysis. Use the Ahrefs backlink explorer to highlight competitors with .gov, .edu/ links, as well as those that are benefitting from significant PR backlinks (Tip: search for “according”, “research”, “study”, “data” in the referring page URL to find these). Can you find competitors who have significant links that mention awards, partnerships or sponsorships in their referring page URLs, anchors or surrounding text? Build up a picture of the types of links that competitors have, compared to your website, and highlight opportunities.

We’ll touch on content ideation methods and content types shortly, though this is where keyword gap analysis can come in handy. Are there any keyword clusters related to your target keyword set that aren’t being addressed in what’s currently out there, and could you offer something different with your link building content that tops these by providing a fresh and unique angle? 

While the number of quality backlinks is a big factor, Google will of course assess other metrics to judge the quality of your content. Can you create content that is more authoritative, helpful and serves the users' needs better than what’s currently ranking well? 

In addition, brands should also consider E-EAT when devising a link building strategy and assessing potential future link assets in general. Alongside some of the aforementioned trust signals such as gaining backlinks from .gov and .edu sites, you will need to ensure you can display a clear level of authority and trustworthiness on the topics that you’re targeting for link building purposes. Can you back up your content marketing with real and trustworthy statistics and credible experience? Is the strategy you have in mind directly related to your brand’s area of expertise and are you able to perhaps draw in a writer or contributor to your assets that proves further expertise?

Ideating topics for link building content and link building content types

So, you’ve got your KPIs bolted down. Budget is in place, and you have an agreed set of keywords, topics and related keyword clusters to target. What’s next? How do we actually go about “building” links that will bring relevant traffic and users to our website? 

The final part of the link building strategy puzzle is to decide on the mechanism or vehicle to be used for your link building campaign. This invariably boils down to a piece of content that you might use to tell a story to attract links around certain keywords. This can often take the form of a long-form article or case study, an infographic or an interactive piece that tells a unique story that is linked to your brand or service. 

For example, a luxury hotel chain may do a piece on a “local’s guide” to some little-known hidden gems in the cities where its hotels are. A more corporate brand, say a car insurance company, may run an in-depth case study that delves into some vital data around comparing insurance costs around the world for different age groups (for example) and pitch it to industry-adjacent publications for coverage.  

If you haven’t got this piece of content yet, then it's time to ideate. Go back to your target keywords and start to brainstorm themes and topics in relation to them. What are some of the personas you can tie back to your products and what are some common pain points that your product or service solves? Run further keyword research in more granular arenas such as Reddit, Quora, social media platforms or Google’s People Also Ask if you have to. Is there a particular hot topic, recent or upcoming event in your industry that is worth talking about and you’re in a position to offer a unique angle on? Involve other team members across the business and dedicate a few sessions to coming up with some content ideas that tell a unique story that is relevant to your business. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, as the more creative and entertaining the better. 

Aside from keywords themselves, what can really work is tailoring content topics around a potential audience or demographic that is relevant to your brand and its campaign. This is sometimes referred to as a “linkable audience”. This effectively stems from thinking about your new and existing customers and what their needs are, and assigning them certain personas and demographics. The audiences of a global sports brand for example are likely to be plentiful, and may include teenagers, young couples and parents. Beyond this, audiences may extend to occupations such as teachers, business executives or civil servants.

Start mapping out personas and what they might come to expect from your brand, what their problems and needs are, and how your future link building assets may appeal to this.

Competitor research is also an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to content ideation. Use Ahrefs’ “best by links” feature to see which content topics are earning the highest authority backlinks (Tip: filter for DoFollow links from DR 20+ websites with a Domain Traffic of 100+ to quickly weed out the low-quality links that will distort the numbers).

Competitor research allows you to back up your content ideas with evidence that such similar topics are linkable. You can brainstorm from these initial topics to add a unique angle or fresh, interesting data.

Tying all of this together, a good sweet spot to arrive at when it comes to ideating link building assets should be a combination of finding a target linkable audience, assessing a good number of link opportunities and whether the content is on-brand and industry-relevant. Do you have a clear and intended audience for your proposed content? Are there enough potential websites and prospects that you can outreach this to and frame it around a compelling story?

Bringing these ideas back to the concept of E-EAT, the topic needs to be relevant to your brand, products and services, and something you can be in a truly authoritative position to comment on. This doesn’t have to be specifically just around your brand in particular and you can think outside the box; especially given the fact there are likely a series of umbrella topics that could be adjacent to what you do.

This is where you can utilise certain areas of your brand culture or ethics to allow a little more creativity when it comes to your link assets. For example, a brand such as Tony’s Chocolonely, a chocolate brand known well for its sustainability and anti-exploitation values, is in a strong position to produce content around these two topics without necessarily always tying it back to chocolate. 

Leveraging existing content for link building

If you’re already blessed with a bank of existing content, then this could be a good place to start if your resources don’t allow you to ideate from scratch. You may also find that your KPIs and target keywords can be tied back to what you have already, so don’t ignore what might already be under your nose. 

Are there any well-written blog pieces that tell a good story? Has your company put out any case studies or data-led thought leadership pieces that can be leveraged to position yourselves as an authoritative voice? Look back over your existing content assets and see if there are any opportunities for your team to improve any of these to make them more “linkable” in relation to your link building strategies.

Are there studies or research pieces that have earned good backlinks in the past but are now outdated? Are there topics you have covered in the past that are now in the current news cycle, or more relevant than they were originally and require more comprehensive content?

Outside of your existing assets, another good avenue of opportunity is to assess what’s already ranking well on your target keyword terms when it comes to your competitors. You may well be in a position to outrank your competitors by offering a similar piece that embellishes the article with a fresh layer of information that brings your content to light. UX and design aspects may also help in this regard, as can making content more thorough and in-depth.

This is sometimes referred to as the “skyscraper” technique, where in short, you look at what’s performing well from a ranking and content marketing perspective, make your version better, and then reach out to relevant prospects.

Measuring and monitoring progress 

A quick word on measuring success. Like any SEO activity, things need to be tested, adjusted, refined and iterated as the campaign unfolds. From a strategic point of view, it’s good to look at data in relation to our KPIs. Going back to the four areas of KPIs we mentioned earlier, let’s take a look at how success can be measured:

Linking Domains

The best and clearest way to measure the success of a link building campaign is to track the number of high-authority domains linking to your website. Ahrefs offers the ability to do this, as well as track and compare the rate at which new domains are linking, with competitors. Reporting on the changing number of total referring domains and especially DoFollow links from sites with a good domain authority themselves, gives a much more accurate snapshot of the overall link profile, compared to the total number of backlinks as a whole.

Domain Authority/Domain Rating

Domain Authority (Moz) and Domain Rating (Ahrefs) is a metric score that gives an accurate picture of the total authority that a domain has. A successful link building campaign will see an increase in DR within Ahrefs, and is the best way to get a clear and fast comparison with competitors. The higher the DR or DA, the more respected and authoritative a domain is considered to be.

Organic traffic growth 

This can be measured by looking at views within your analytics reporting suites. Google Search Console and Google Analytics are good places to start. Consider setting up reporting dashboards that monitor the pages you are building links to or are directing users to as a result of your link building material. How is traffic to these pages performing over time? Has there been a sustained level of growth beyond the initial bump that your pages are getting once links have gone live?

Keyword rankings

It’s important to keep an eye on the keyword rankings of your target keywords in relation to the content you’re building links around, as well as the core commercial pages, and the domain as a whole. Many third-party tools offer this feature. While SEO has been known to take its time, landing a big link on a well-known publication in your industry can send your webpages soaring up the rankings if it picks up enough steam and engagement. Incorporate keyword ranking visualisations alongside your traffic reporting and be sure to continually monitor core rankings as your link building activities continue.

Final thoughts

Having a solid link building strategy in place is vital to ensure that your campaign aligns with KPIs that matter to your business. Avoid flying blind by ensuring you agree on goals from the offset, identify target search terms where you can realistically make an impact and leverage content in a way that speaks to your user base. 

Link building will help to drive authority to your most important commercial pages, specific subfolders and your domain. Competitor research will show you important insights into the types of links you should aim to build, as well as the methods you can use to build them. It’s also a useful starting point for brainstorming content ideas, with evidence of topics that are highly linkable.

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About the authors

James Cook has been working in SEO for the past 10 years, having started his career at Vouchercloud. James is our Link Building Strategy Consultant and handles strategy and research for our clients. Ron Carandang joined Reddico in 2014, having been in the SEO industry since 2008 and is our Link Building Product Manager, leading our processes including outreach.

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