Link building is a crucial element in off-page search engine optimization (SEO). This guide will explain the basics of link building and tactics, to help you get the most from your call tracking software to improve your link building efforts.
- What is link building?
- Why are links important?
- Types of link building
- Types of link building to avoid
- Link building penalties
- Mobile-first indexing and link building
- Other link building tips
What is link building?
Link building is an SEO process in which marketers work to acquire outside website links that are directed toward his or her website. Link building covers multiple tactics, including active techniques such as requesting links back to a site, and passive techniques like creating the type of content that users naturally curate and link back to.
Tactics for link building are constantly changing. As is true for SEO generally, strategies that were effective in the past might be frowned upon or even counter-productive nowadays. It’s best not to purchase links or try to game the system, but instead to build links through the methods outlined below.
Why are links important?
Links are a crucial part of SEO. Search engines see links back to a site as a vote for that site. Working to build links naturally (as opposed to manipulative, ‘black hat’ link building techniques) is a form of off-site SEO. ‘White hat’ SEO refers to search-engine-sanctioned optimization techniques.
Links are still a ranking factor
Links are important to SEO because the link popularity of a page is a factor in its overall search ranking. Study after study has shown that search engines see a link back to a site as a vote in the linked site’s favor. Site links also help pass on what’s called link popularity. Factors like quality, quantity, relevance, and anchor text all play into link popularity.
Quality means the authority of sites that link to yours and the sites that link to them (pages that rank well, topic expertise, linked by trusted sources, clicked on frequently, relevant to the query).
Quantity refers to the number count of links that point to a site. Essentially, this is all of the links that sit somewhere else on the web and point to your site.
Relevance tells search engines what topical or geographic neighborhood your pages/site belongs in. Essentially, what is your page about?
Anchor text is the actual text that has the link. Search engines see this as an endorsement of what’s to come and a potential query ranking factor. The types of anchor text include the following:
- Branded anchor: This is a link anchored with your brand name. “Read more about call tracking on the CallRail website.”
- Keyword anchor: This is a link to a site that uses a keyword. “Read more about call tracking on the CallRail website.”
- URL anchor: This is often one of the most popular. It links with an anchor to the website’s actual URL. “Read more about call tracking at CallRail.com.”
A note about anchor text: Anchor text is a weighted quantity. Hyperlink when it makes sense, but don’t overdo it. Make anchor text conversational. Balance is key in SEO. If there’s no balance in anchor text, it looks like manipulation (i.e. if all the links to your site have the same anchor text, that doesn’t look natural).
Types of link building
Marketers and webmasters can build links in many ways. Building natural, useful links is the key to good off-page SEO. The process can be broken down into two main categories. Both require thoughtful planning and outreach, but can take your strategy in different directions.
Internal linking refers to how you link to pages on your own site–from your own site. Many people see the navigation as the main source of internal links. However, it’s crucial to link to pages that you want users to find from high traffic landing pages.
According to Moz, “these types of links are useful for three reasons:
- They allow users to navigate a website.
- They help establish information hierarchy for the given website.
- They help spread link equity (ranking power) around websites.”
When you write a new piece of content, think about other pages that are relevant to the topic, and include links back to that page. Once you’ve published a new piece, make sure to go through older content and find places where you can link back to your newly published piece.
Foundational link building
Foundational link building includes the kind of links that build the infrastructure of a site’s inbound links. They involve potentially less of a time commitment than content link building and include the following:
- Broken link building: Reclaiming broken links involves finding sites that have links to outside resources that are broken and emailing the webmaster to inform him or her, and request that they replace the broken link with a link to your relevant piece of content. This can be a touchy tactic to build links, so tread carefully and make sure you’re doing it with compassion. No webmaster wants to be told they messed up or their UX is bad. Make sure you find commonality with that person instead of just calling them out on a 404.
- Unlinked mentions: This strategy involves finding mentions of your company, product, or brands, and asking the webmaster to include a link back to your site. It’s easy enough, but again it’s crucial to be friendly, find something in common with the person you’re asking (not just that you want a link), and graciously accept a decline.
- Resource page links: If you are an expert in an industry or technology, reach out to be featured on resource pages for sites that feature a “more info” section. First things first, find something in common to help build the relationship and then elaborate on why you think your site would be a beneficial addition to the page. Maybe it’s missing something that your content can provide or you have the latest data or news in an area.
- Borrowed images/ “courtesy of” links: If someone uses your proprietary information or images without a link back, this is a perfect time to say, “Hey, I saw that you’re using our infographic on your latest blog post. I think that’s awesome, and I’m so glad you find it useful. We’d love if you’d link back to our site so other people who find it useful can get more info too!” Even if the link just says, “Courtesy of CallRail,” it’s still a great link back to your site.
Content-focused link building
Most natural links come from creating great content that users and webmasters across the web can curate. Content can include data, infographics, other images, study analysis, survey, case studies, and more. Becoming a thought leader in your niche or industry can help set you apart and gain more links.
Take interesting approaches, but make sure to create content that can potentially be evergreen, and isn’t just newsworthy for a short time. These short-term articles can drive an initial traffic and link boost, but can become dated quickly.
Using call data to build links
One way to create great content that interests users and gets links is to mine data and topics from your calls. There are qualitative and quantitative ways to find the best content for links from your calls:
- Qualitative: This method involves collecting data in calls based on what your callers are saying. If you find a common thread in many of your calls, many people probably have the same questions. That topic or question could be a potential post that could be linked across the web.
- Example: A pest control company is getting multiple calls from potential clients worried about the mosquitoes and the Zika virus in their area. By creating an authoritative post on mosquitoes, the Zika virus, and how pest control companies are working to combat it across the globe, the company is creating content that people will like, share, and comment on.
- Quantitative: Using tools like CallRail’s tagging feature, you could make a quantitative analysis of the types of calls that are coming into your business. That data can then be parsed and aggregated to create a kind of informal study of proprietary data that a site can publish.
- Example: A financial software company can tag their support calls to recognize when callers are asking for help filing their taxes and determine that the majority of users who call in are asking about the best ways to file their taxes. The company can then publish a report with these numbers. For example, “Survey shows that 85% of financial software users are unsure of what deductions they can make for medical expenses.” By elaborating on that, the company can show that they are the expert in this area and gain links from multiple sources who also find this data interesting.
Types of link building to avoid
Paid links: Search engines frown upon link buying. The idea is that people will naturally link to the kind of content that they find useful and popular. By buying links, webmasters are attempting to game the system—skipping over the user. While paid link schemes may pay off initially, they often can result in a penalty or large traffic and rankings drops when algorithms improve and change.
Large-scale guest posting: This was a link building tactic that worked well in previous years, but has resulted in ranking demotions for websites that previously benefited from it. The February 2017 algorithm update was hypothesized to be a tweak in the Penguin algorithm, which got better at determining which links to ignore. This update devalued links from PBNs and site that relied on guest posting for links.
Blanket widgets & badges: Another antiquated form of link building, this includes creating a badge that you could have your product or service users place on their site, linking back to yours. Initially, this meant a ton of links from all your users or clients back to your site, which could help with your rankings. In 2016, Google recommended webmasters not try to use this as a link building strategy anymore.
Other major linking techniques to avoid
- Low-quality directories
- Footer links
- Template links
- Large-scale reciprocal linking
- Spamming with press releases
- Forced forum drops
Link building penalties
When a site suffers a large traffic drop, many people wonder if they’ve received a penalty or if the algorithm has changed. It’s important to note that when you receive a manual penalty from Google, you’ll receive a notification in your Search Console.
The difficult part about link building and reputation management is that sometimes you just drop from SERPs without a readily available or easy explanation. According to Debra Mastaler, Features Editor at Search Engine Land, “It’s not always about what YOU do; it’s about what other people around you do too.” When spammy sites link back to your site, their online reputation is then linked to yours. If you don’t want that reputation associated with your site, there are a few things you can do.
Mastaler recommends using tools to determine who is linking in to your site. Search Console is a must for any SEO and give you a list of all the sites that link in to yours. Other tools like SEMRush can also give you this information and rate the quality of the site that links to yours.
Once you find where the spammy links are coming from, Mastaler recommends reaching out to the webmaster and asking for the link to your site to be removed. Make sure to document everything you’re doing to have the link removed. You can use this as evidence that you did everything right if you are hit with a manual penalty. If the webmaster at the spammy site refuses to remove the link, your last resort would be to disavow the link. This is a signal to search engines that you don’t want the link to your site to be recognized. Google’s John Mueller claims that the search engine can determine which links to ignore, but Mastaler says better safe than sorry.
An important note about disavowing links: SEOs should use the disavow tool sparingly, and should never disavow an entire domain–just the page where the spam link is located. She also recommends that marketers work to build more links than they disavow.
Mobile-first indexing and link building
Mobile-first indexing is looming on the horizon for search engine optimization managers. This means that Google specifically will begin crawling and indexing websites from the perspective of a mobile device instead of a desktop device. Sites that don’t perform well on mobile devices will move down in rankings, while sites that have focused on mobile-friendliness will potentially move up.
Because search engines crawl the web through links and use that data to build the index, any changes in linking from mobile to desktop mean potential changes in SERPs. When asked if the new index woud have an impact on the overall link graph, Mueller said he expected it would:
I some ways, definitely. In a major way, I doubt it.
— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) April 12, 2017
This means that the change could also potentially affect internal link building practices, too. In an article for Search Engine Watch, Sam Underwood states, ”If your internal linking/information architecture on the mobile site does not closely replicate the desktop, this can cause internal link equity to be poorly distributed throughout the site, which will cause a drop in rankings.”
In order to maintain link equity, it’s key to have a responsive site design that loads quickly and has a good UX on both mobile and desktop.
Other link building tips
It’s important to consider a few things before requesting a link back to your site. Firstly, the “equity” that gets passed via links gets passed on a page level, not on the domain level. So, the page that the webmaster links from is important. A link on a page with a list of 100 other links could be less valuable than a link on the main product page of a site.
Do thorough research on the domains and pages from which you want to request links. Remember that a good link comes from a page that’s trustworthy, relevant to the audience, and strutctured well. Would you rather have a link from a site that has a Domain Authority (DA) of 40 or a site with a DA of 60+ that has manual penalties against it?
Similarly, if a page or a site isn’t in search engine’s index, then it is of no value to you to get a link back. Spiders can’t crawl the page to see that it’s linked back to you. Basic research includes determining if the page you’re getting the link from is performing well in SERPs for given keywords, participates in social media, gets generally good online reviews, loads quickly, and is HTTPS secure.
Now that you have the basics down, it’s time to get to link building!