What does link building even mean these days?

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By Rachel Smith
on 11/4/14

What do you think of when someone says the word “link building”? There’s a lot of debate in the industry surrounding what once used to be an integral part of most SEO strategies, and there always will be as Google continues to update its algorithm. As someone who works in the Outreach team at Return on Digital, a role that in the past could have had the title of “linkbuilder”, I wanted to share my views on what “link building” means for the team here and how we approach this task.

Not all link building is bad

What link building doesn’t mean anymore

Here are just a few examples of tactics, which for a time, were the acceptable way to build links in volume: links in forum signatures, populating the comments sections of popular websites with your links, adding your link to every online directory available.

Good luck trying to get anywhere in Google if you’re still doing any of the above, and in fact, having links of that type could actually stand against you. One of the services we’ve been conducting more frequently for new clients is a link “clean up” involving the disavowing and removal of links which could be harming a site. (Link disavowing is a whole debate within itself after you’ve finished reading this post, it’s worth having a look at my colleague Alex’s blog post on whether you should disavow links if you don’t have a manual penalty from Google.)

So if link building isn’t just about getting links everywhere and anywhere you can, where should you begin?

Where to start with your link building campaign?

In my opinion, it all starts with your mindset. With a lot of companies having different agencies and in-house teams dealing with different aspects of marketing, it’s easy to see SEO and in particular link building as a standalone activity – something that happens in the background every month, independent of the other marketing activity taking place offline and in other online channels. Running your link building this way is only going to offer limited success.

Instead, you need to open the channels of communication between your marketing teams and bring everything together. The way I see it, every piece of marketing you do, whether it’s online, offline or internal marketing is an opportunity – not just for links, but for brand awareness, referral traffic and conversions. Plan your campaigns with this in mind from the start and you’ll be heading in the right direction.

How does this work in practice?

Once you have an integrated approach in mind, it’s time to think links! Here are a few steps the team here at Return on Digital take when it comes to planning link building campaigns.

1)      Run a competitor link analysis

It’s good to start with a snapshot of your website’s link profile in relation to your competitors. Return on Digital have a free tool which can compare up to 3 competitor websites for you and provide a snapshot, try it out here.
For a more detailed view of individual competitor links, is another useful tool. Looking at your competitor links can also be a great way to spark ideas for how you can gain links, but be aware, you may find some frustrating results too, there are a number of websites which appear to have a “spammy” backlink profile but still rank well in Google (we can only hope Google catches up with them eventually!).


2)      Identify what has worked for you in the past

As well as looking at your competitor’s links, it’s worth have a thorough look through your own link profile. How have you managed to get quality links in the past? Can you follow similar tactics again? The key here is quality, for example, a journalist who wrote about your brand in the past could be interested if you have something new to share.


3)      Make the most of your resources - time to integrate your other marketing channels


Personally, this is the fun part for me. I thrive on coming up with ideas and different angles for how to use the resources I’ve been given. The most obvious example I can give is using PR coverage to gain links. Often PR activity is seen by clients as an offline channel, with the aim being to gain coverage in print newspapers and magazines. Return’s role is to turn this good offline PR coverage into online links. One way to do this is by expanding the reach of the coverage and contacting online-only publications with the news.

Aside from PR, there are so many other assets which clients have, that they’re not yet seeing as something with link potential. I often find myself going through deeper pages on client websites and through their marketing material to find the hidden gems that I can turn into link opportunities. Examples include clients attending events, white papers they have produced, their staff speaking engagements, user guides they have produced and much more. These items might not have an instant appeal to everybody, but the web is full of niche websites, you just have to find the right place for your offering.


I’ve put together a checklist which you can follow if you’re starting an integrated campaign and want to maximise your link building opportunities, download your copy below.

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