Sometimes referred to as an inbound link, a backlink is simply any linked anchor text or image that directs users to another external website. Any strong off-page SEO or inbound marketing strategy is based on acquiring quality backlinks because they’re the pieces that make your site respectable. Generally, a site with a high level of authority will have a better PageRank score—these are typically popular sites like cnn.com, espn.com, or reddit.com—which means they’re like the Holy Grail of backlinks. So, too, are authoritative sites that are within your niche or a similar vertical.
But be wary of imitators lest you want to become like that dude from Indiana Jones who chose the wrong chalice.
How can you avoid “choosing poorly”? You should be (or have hired) a highly functioning Interneteer—ooh, a new term!—who can see the forest from the trees and smell a con before it walks in the room. You might be on the right path toward the Fountain of Youth if you can spot the difference between the low-ranking joeschmo.com site and the buildyourseofast1234.xyz site; even if joeschmo.com needs some webdev and website optimization work, it could still be a good source for an inbound link to your site, while the latter is likely a public backlink exchange site (aka. a big black-hat SEO no-no).
Being able to understand the differences between the two sites is but a small fraction of what it takes to be a backlink pro. Here are a few other creative ideas you can try out if you need a better balance of SERP and off-page/inbound traffic.
A Quick Note on Shareable Content
First and foremost, you must be creating content that serves more than just your traffic-building goals. It should be informative, engaging, even controversial; if it’s not, it’s unlikely to be seen in Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds, which are incredible ways to have your content cycle through to those popular sites mentioned earlier. And if you don’t have a social media management team in place, get one.
Dmoz or bust? Nah.
Whether you craft homemade soaps or are a car dealership, you can find a directory that caters to your niche—or at least try to. Simply do a search for your “main topical keyword” + “directory” and see what pops up.
Again, the days of spammy link-building strategies are kaput, so you must be critical of every directory you find. Here are some questions to ask (and answer) about the directory before you submit your site.
- Do they appear to be trustworthy? If the directory looks clean and shows up as a top page on the SERP, they might be. Check their Alexa rank.
- Does page hierarchy make sense, or is it simply a cluster? If there are clearly organized categories, such as SEO, SEM, PPC, etc., it’s a good first step.
- Do they accept every link that’s submitted? If you find multiple sites that don’t fit into the niche, they’re probably just allowing anything into the directory.
- Do they request you to exchange a link to be listed? Just say “no” to unnatural link exchanges.
- When was the last time it was updated? If the © is not the current year, then steer clear.
- Do they seem to vet the quality of the links submitted? If many of them are ranked very low or even banned or penalized by Google, that’s a bad sign that they don’t do QC.
- Are there a ton of pop-up ads (which could be a sign of malware)? If you see a directory in the SERP, it’s not banned. But if there are pop-ups and malware, it’s on the way to being banned.
- Do they use spammy anchor text? Enough said.
Take a look at this directory, and let’s run down the list of questions.
- Trustworthy – Pretty boring look. Did not show up on the first page of search results. Alexa rank is uber high at over 9 million.
- Page Hierarchy – Organized, but far too broad. It doesn’t fit into a niche.
- Link Acceptance – Free and seems to accept everything.
- Link Exchange – They exchange links (see red box in the image).
- Copyright Date – Appears to have been last updated in 2012. Yikes.
- Vetting – Varies. Some sites have decent Alexa ranks, others very high, and some are delivering 404 errors, supporting the idea that they don’t update regularly.
- Pop-ups – None. We’re good there.
- Anchor Text – Here’s an example of one anchor text: “Buy cheap AMBIEN online,Order AMBIEN USA,online buy AMBIEN UK,order AMBIEN online.”
When in doubt, trust your gut.
Ask for a Blogger Review
You likely know of a few important sites within your niche that offer readers research tools, news, reports, and reviews. All of those sites probably enlist the help of one or more writers. This is who you’re targeting, but is it as easy as simply asking them to help you out? Sometimes it is, but it typically takes much more effort on your part.
First, you’ll want to do some research on quality sites that write reviews regularly. Do a search for “keyword” + “reviews” and add each quality site you find to a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet should include columns for the following:
- Site Name
- Meta Title
- Meta Description
- Email or Contact Info
- Contacted (with yes/no buttons or text)
- Responded (with yes/no buttons or text)
- More Info
- Link to Your Review
Format it in a way that’s easy for you to understand and call on for quick reference.
Then do more searches and add any review sites that don’t overlap.
Once your spreadsheet is filled up, you’ll want to start contacting those reviewers. Create an email script that is personalized as much as possible and offer your service or product for free. Word choice here is important; you don’t want to anger the Google Webmaster Guideline gods by asking to exchange backlinks.
Write Guest Posts
Depending on your industry, you should be able to find very reputable sites that will publish guest posts. In fact, many will do this since it’s new content that’s virtually free to produce.
Do some searches for your major keywords, visit the high-ranking sites, and check out their blog or news pages. Once there, try to determine if they have a group of writers or utilize the help of freelancers. If it’s the latter, contact the editors and see if they would be interested in a mutually beneficial partnership.
To help differentiate a guest blogger with an on-staff writer, you can copy their headshot image (if they have one) and do a reverse image search on Google. Does that writer show up on multiple sites? Ding ding ding—we have a winner.
Just remember the following about your guest post:
- It is not about your company, but rather about the topic at hand. Don’t deviate from that topic.
- It needs to be written A poorly written article can slingshot the bad mojo back and lay it thick on your brand image.
- It can have a backlink to your site somewhere subtle, perhaps in your writer’s profile, but don’t push it willy-nilly into the write-up itself.
- It is the property of the site for which it is written.
But you can still ask about using memes because they’re pretty great.
Like directories, a link roundup just aggregates sites. But there’s one key difference between the two: Link roundups aren’t stagnant collections, but rather updated lists of the best posts, articles, news, reviews, and content of the past day/week/month/year.
To find a link roundup within your niche, try a search for some of the following:
- “keyword” + “link roundup”
- “best of” + “keyword/niche”
- “news” + “keyword”
Go ahead and use a new tab within your new spreadsheet with the same layout. Then contact the webmasters or writers and let them know of a recent post, video, or podcast you’ve done that their readers would find interesting.
Third-party sites might use no-follow links, but a link is a link is a link. Google still takes into account no-follow links as they pertain to your indexed listing—to what degree, who knows? If you’re an SMB, make sure you’re always asking customers to review your company on Google, Yelp, Yahoo, etc. Heck, even if you’re a larger company, client testimonials can go a long way to improving your brand image.
Think about this: If Elon Musk of Tesla gave your car dealership a five-star review, wouldn’t you shout it for all the world to hear? Companies respect other companies’ opinions, so if you’re excited about a product or service you used, let that company know by leaving them a glowing recommendation. If you have some clout within the industry, or even if you’re a fledgling entrepreneur, they might put that review on their own site and link it back to yours. That’s how natural inbound marketing should work—with mutual respect.
Local Websites & Events
If you have a service, event, or volunteer/outreach program that benefits a certain community, try and get your site or landing page on their event calendar. Local .gov and .edu sites and their webmasters are typically pretty good about responding to requests and inquiries in general, so you have a good shot at making their grade.
Make a Donation
If you have a local charity or nonprofit that you respect, donate to them as your business. If they have a list of donators on their site, you can ask them for a backlink and its inherent PageRank juice. You’ll serve your community, improve your image, and up the ante on your local SEO efforts.
Link Unlinked Mentions
If you aren’t monitoring your online reputation, that’s your first step toward this backlink strategy.
The next? Find mentions of your company that aren’t linked to your site or are broken. You can do this manually or with free and paid services like:
These resources allow you to set up alerts for references to your brand name or any keyword for that matter.
Then you have to go through each one and check to see if those mentions are links (tip: use a new tab in your spreadsheet). If not, can and should they be? If they are, are they broken?
When you contact those writers, be friendly; they have little reason to add a link except out of the goodness of their own heart. However, if you correct their broken link, they might very well be appreciative.
Another effective tactic of online reputation management is the monitoring of your rivals within the industry, especially at the local level. Use similar services like those mentioned above to keep an eye on two things (primarily):
- When and what they post – Doing so allows you to potentially identify their schedule and try to post similar news before they do, as well as create better content, which we’ll use for point 2 below.
- Who is mentioning them – You want to find out the sites and users that link to your competitor’s site. Do you share any backlinking domains with them? If so, that’s a good sign. If not, figure out how to increase that commonality. A good way to add yourself into the mix is to contact that site or user and let them know that your content is better and see if they’d rather link to yours. Detail why it’s better and how it can benefit their readers. And if you are making such a bold claim, make certain that your content is objectively better.
On the topic of broken links, you may find your fair share when doing research or simply browsing industry news. I’m here to tell you that there’s solid gold in those 404s!
Let’s say you’re reading a news article about current AdWords and PPC trends. In it, the writer has linked to a broken page. You spot the error, but instead of correcting it, you wipe your hands clean.
Shame on you. Didn’t your mother teach you better than that? Instead, you should be a helpful little reader and notify them of their blunder. Get in the habit of checking all the industry-relevant sites you visit for broken links—I use the Check My Links Chrome Extension—and email the owner to give them a heads-up. Oh, and what do you know? You also have great and newsworthy content that that owner and their readers might like. Let them know to check your site out and give them permission to add a backlink or review.
Another Dead Link Strategy
If you find broken links on sites, you can also take this alternative route to getting some backlinks. Instead of simply having the owner correct the issue, you can instead become a sly fox and dig a little deeper as to the why it’s broken. Is it simply a mistyped URL or has the domain been canceled? If it’s the latter, you have two options:
- Contact the owner whose site links out to the broken domain. Tell them that site is no longer operational, but your site is and has the same information, service, or product. Ask them to replace the URL and re-anchor it with your landing page.
- Buy the domain and scrape its Use a domain management tool or checker like Google Domains to see if it’s available for purchase. You don’t even need to host it—just buy for the year, scrape, and go. Some domains can be purchased for just dollars, so you have a low bar for ROI. Then go and contact all the sites who’ve linked to the domain, using the same strategy as the first option above.
Create a Scholarship
We did say unique, right?
Building a college scholarship program is certainly altruistic, but for our purposes, the subtext of offering such an award is to increase your web of backlinks. Some of the most trusted websites are those ending with .edu, and having a backlink on such a site can do wonders for your ranking.
But it’ll take some work on your end to design that scholarship.
- Choose an amount of money you’re comfortable awarding a student.
- Decide on the availability of this scholarship (e.g. once per semester/trimester/quarter).
- Set restrictions on who can receive the scholarship (e.g. incoming freshmen; community college students; applied mathematics majors).
- Write a “mission statement” that explains why you’re making this available, who you are, and how it benefits the selected student.
- Detail what the applicants must do to be considered for the award (e.g. write a 500-word essay about ending world hunger).
- Describe how applicants and winners will be chosen.
Then you must get the word out. Find universities, community colleges, trade schools, and two-year programs that have links to scholarships, then contact the appropriate departments. Describe your program in detail within the email you send out and be sure to add a link to a landing page and pdf. With luck, you’ll find your way across a great many .edu sites.
University Resource Pages
While we’re on the topic of .edu sites, you might also try to get an inbound link on a university resource page. If you feel like you have a tool, content, or information that would be beneficial to college students within a particular field of study, consider building out a landing page. For instance, if you have an online tool that pumps out MLA, APA, CMS citations, those in Liberal Arts programs could very well find it useful. Landing on a university page could give you solid inbound traffic for years.
A colleague of mine introduced me to the term “newsjacking” the other day—Hi, George!—and I thought about how it could help with short-term inbound traffic. My conclusion: Jury’s still out, but it’s always worth a shot.
If there’s a popular story that’s just come out in your industry, hop on the train and capitalize on it to promote your own company and services. The best thing about newsjacking is that you’re not a journalist. Therefore you aren’t relegated to following the same rules as they are to create some illusion of unbiased reporting. No—throw your opinions in a blog post about the news, tell others what you expect it means, and sell your brand. Then promote it on social media within the first 24 hours of the news breaking waves.
On the other hand, if you have a viral news story to share about yourself or your industry, use Help a Reporter Out (HARO) to become a verified source. With nearly half a million users and journalists using the service, you have the outlet to share your expertise with an audience that expands across the globe. As a source, you can receive up to 3 requests per day on your chosen topic. When you find one you like, pitch yourself and the story you have to share to the requesting journalist, and then blast off with more backlinks than you can count.
Forums and Q&A Boards
Find forums, message boards, or Q&A sites that fall within your industry. General sites like Quora or Yahoo Answers are good places to start, but you should also branch out to niche sites to reach a more qualified audience. For instance, if a user were to search for “what car should I buy forum” it’s likely that the first SERP will be filled with car-related pages, posts, and articles rather than Yahoo Answers.
Yep, I was right. Here’s the organic SERP for that phrase (below).
And just to prove that niche and industry-related sites are better than general sites, here’s that search phrase in Yahoo Answers (below). You’ll see that people have asked this question multiple times, yet none of those appear in the organic search results.
But I semi-digress; the primary purpose of visiting those forums is two-fold.
- Add another backlink to your landing page/home page.
To add a potential backlink, you can format your account signature to include one or many. I say “potential” because most of these message boards probably utilize no-follow links, but some may not. Here’s an example of a signature from an admin at mightcarmods.com.
You can also simply refer people to your page when replying or starting a thread.
- Build brand recognition and prove your expertise.
Even if the links in your signature aren’t followed, you can still make a difference and see an increase of inbound traffic by actually giving advice and answering questions regularly. Your replies may be so welcome that you’ll notice a steady climb of inbound traffic as that information you provided is used in other how-to guides and blog posts. Yay!
To help, here’s a super helpful idea: Find a question on one of these forums that you know you can answer well, then create a video or blog post about it. You can use that as a response.
Remember, you’re the online face for your company within this community, so be sure to use the proper voice and tone respectfully in your replies. (And ignore the trolls—they’re not worth the hassle.)
Post YouTube Videos
Let’s say you own a business—an auto body shop that applies custom decals to sports cars. This business of yours is operated from your two-car garage, but even with your limited space, you know your stuff like the back of your hand. Creating a DIY and how-to video is your chance to prove it.
Ok. Let’s say your business doesn’t do interior detailing, but you have experience at a professional level with such a service. Pump out a how-to vid titled, “How to Detail Your Car Like a Boss.” There are numerous premium and free video editing programs you can use to add intros and music, clip and crop sections, and reduce file sizes.
When it’s a nice and spiffy guide that shows your capabilities in the best light, use the same advice with replying to forum posts to spread it around.
An infograph is one of the best sources for backlinks because they’re so dang shareable and uber simple to understand. Even the most complex technique or topic can be summed up well in an infograph using visual data like graphs, charts, and hierarchies—just look at ours.
Use your infographics as a blog post and share away. You can submit it to industry-specific sites using previously mentioned strategies. Here is a list of pages that might accept infograph submissions, though it’s somewhat outdated. You can also share to public sites like www.reddit.com/r/infographics or another subreddit related to your industry.
Edit Relevant Wikipedia Pages
As an expert in your field, you have the right to improve upon Wikipedia pages that fall within that field—so long as your expertise and information isn’t questionable. Create a landing page about the topic and information you’re adding, and be sure to add data and other resources that can substantiate your content. Then edit the Wiki article and add your site and any relevant source material as a citation within the footnotes.
Create a List of Resources
A backlink to your site isn’t always about the content you create, but it can also be about the content you’ve found elsewhere that can be helpful. And not just content, either.
Consider a list of resources that benefit your users. Are there online tools or calculators they can use? Perhaps a thorough DIY article on another site? Or maybe you’ve found superb spreadsheet templates that are perfect for keeping track of Google Analytics metrics? Compile them into one area and optimize that page and its metadata, because it could be the spear to the White Whale called “Backlink Acquisition.”
Whew—what a post. My fingers are exhausted, but with that exhaustion comes your potential prosperity so I can deal with the cramps and tingles. Take this advice to heart as you dive into 2017, and your efforts should be rewarded with those yummy backlinks you’ve been craving.
Have any other cool, unique, or atypical tactics to acquire backlinks? Throw them at us in the comments below! Our experts at OppMax would love to add a few new tricks up our sleeves.