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Backlinks were the original ranking factor that Google’s PageRank algorithm considered when ranking websites in order of their popularity and importance for a user’s search term.
In the early days of the internet, all you needed was a bunch of backlinks from wherever you could gather them in order to rank well. However with time, Google’s (and other search engines’) algorithms got smarter.
It’s no use now for a website to have hundreds or thousands of links to their so called “money pages.” Over-optimising the anchor text in the hope of ranking higher boomerangs too. Sweeping penalties on websites that used below the belt schemes to earn backlinks have now made tricks like comment spamming on blogs and forums, article directory submissions, and buying links on link exchanges, all absolute no-nos.
So what does a budding new website do to build a clean SEO profile from scratch?
Step 1: Invest in a good link analysis tool that will not just tell you what backlinks you’re building, but will also tell you how they affect your rank over time. RankWatch is a sort of all-in-one SEO tool that includes a robust backlink profiler, comprehensive on-page analysis, integration with Google Analytics, and paid and organic keyword research. The tool also offers an interesting “low hanging fruits” feature that recommends keywords in your niche you’re not optimizing but are ranking moderately well for, and so you can quickly rank better for them by building related landing pages and a few links to these landing pages.
Step 2: Steer clear of get-links-quick schemes that seem too good to be true. They usually are. From algorithmic penalties to manual ones, black hat SEO sets you up on a minefield that is nearly impossible to extricate yourself from.
Step 3: Devote your time and resources to creating content that will be your bona fide ticket to great backlinks. Once you have a strong pipeline of content in place, it’s time to embark on these penalty-proof, proven strategies to earn your first backlinks.
Analyse competitors’ links
If imitation is the best form of flattery, get set to flatter the big boys in your industry niche by following their example when it comes to earning backlinks. Pick a tool like SEMrush that offers you detailed analysis of your competitors’ backlink profile, and figure out in seconds all the various avenues that potentially link out to a site that’s just like yours. You even get to know what type of links they’ve got – links from content, images, forms or frames.
Once you know the top websites that link to your competition, you can work towards building links from these sites yourself. Does your competition get links from the Chamber of Commerce? List your site there; it’s normally free. Do leading online magazines carry their content? Contact the editors of these publications and offer superb quality content to them that offers you at least a link back in the form of an author bio.
Get your suppliers and customers to work for you
A simple, yet often untapped way of gaining penalty-free backlinks is by asking your suppliers and customers to put in a good word about you. Since they directly work with your business and are in a genuine position to offer trustworthy feedback about you, Google treats reviews (both quality and quantity wise) as an important ranking signal, especially in its local ranking algorithm.
By now most sites have learnt the significance of showcasing user reviews on their own site. This social proof helps create an environment of trust that helps conversions. However, you can also request your customers to review your product / services on a prominent third-party review site in your industry, or even on their own website in the form of a blog if they have one.
You could also offer reviews to suppliers for their products and get featured on their site. This will get your site backlinks while simultaneously building trust among your suppliers’ target audience.
Feature in weekly “best of” roundups
Many leading sites and bloggers publish a weekly or monthly roundup of articles and stories that offered the best content in a particular niche during that period. Track down such sites with a simple Google search and reach out to the creators of these posts to build a personal connection.
Ditch that template email that you fall back on for your daily outreach. You’re betting big here, put in some effort that warrants the results you’re hoping for. Address the writer by their name and tell them how you enjoy reading their weekly lists of the best in your niche. You could even bring up specific pieces that actually helped you, to create authenticity. Once you’ve laid the foundation, suggest a piece of content that you’ve created that the writer could feature on their weekly list. Show them how the piece is well-liked by your audience.
Offer to share with them small, introductory paragraph about your content that they can insert into their weekly list to make their life simpler. If you do all that right and back it up with some brilliant content, there’s no way they’ll not take the bait.
Guest post, but cautiously
Google’s former Head of Web Spam, Matt Cutts, has publicly disavowed guest posting over and over again. However, not all guest posting is bad. Great quality content that readers seek out due to its intrinsic value is still a good bet to earn backlinks from.
When you pick sites to guest post on, avoid sites with a low domain authority (the de facto PageRank substitute since Google stopped revealing it). You’ll be wasting your time creating great content for sites that aren’t considered too great by Google to begin with. A ton of recommendations that come from such sites in the form of backlinks are less effective than a single backlink from a super-high authority site. To make matters worse, sites with low quality content risk being penalized by Google for being too spammy. It follows that by associating your site with a potential loser, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.
So, pick the very best of sites, create content that is a perfect match for their content strategy, and make sure you follow their editorial guidelines to the T before approaching them.
Backlinks are to Google what a dash of salt is to a gourmet meal. You may have the best, freshest ingredients in town, but without that humblest of ingredients to bring them all together, your dish is doomed to fall flat on its face.
While strong on-page SEO will pull users in, the surest way to build site authority over the long term is by investing in backlinks. Make them your SEO priority no.1!