There’s an old SEO strategy that still crushes it.
Know what it’s called?
And if you’re not actively using it to rank higher in search results, you should be.
Based on my own experiences, most marketers don’t use link building correctly because they’re not really sure how it works.
But that changes today.
In this 5-part article, I’m going to give you an in-depth overview of how SEO works together with link building, and also give you the only guidelines you need to start earning backlinks that catapult your pages to the top of Google.
Let’s get started.
Learn How SEO Works with Link Building (5-Part Guide)
Part 1: How SEO Works
Before you can understand link building, you first need to understand SEO: what it is, why it matters and how it works.
What Is SEO?
This definition from Search Engine Land sums it up perfectly:
Let’s break down each of these descriptors to further clarify this definition, using Google as an example:
“Free” means you don’t pay for traffic generation or impressions.
For instance, Google offers both free traffic (from standard searches) and paid traffic (from AdWords ads).
“Organic” means traffic from search results that is earned and not paid for.
“Editorial” refers to traffic generated from search results that originates from content and links that are manually placed by humans.
“Natural” means traffic from search results that’s generated from natural content, not purposefully created to manipulate search engine rankings.
In its simplest form, SEO is:
Optimizing your site and pages to rank as high as possible on search engines.
Why Does SEO Matter?
Google, the world’s most popular search engine, averages 40,000 searches per second.
Do the math and that’s 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year.
Add to that the fact that 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine, and it becomes pretty obvious why SEO matters to site owners.
Search engines are traffic generating machines …
… if you can rank your pages high enough for people to notice them.
Research shows that 60% of all clicks on search engines go to the top three organic search results:
And click rate continues to drop dramatically the lower the ranking (becoming virtually non-existent once a page is no longer ranking on the first page of search results).
This fact leads to two important truths:
1. A page needs to rank high in search results (top 10) to reap the benefits, and
2. Everyone is trying to rank their pages in the top 10 of search results.
What we have now is a competition for search results positions, where search engines are the battlefield and SEO tactics are the necessary weapons.
Here’s the real reason why SEO matters:
It matters because it gives you the necessary means to outrank your closest competitors and persuade people to visit your site instead of theirs.
How Does SEO Work?
In order to understand how SEO works, you first need to understand how search engines work.
This short video (3:15 to be exact) by Matt Cutts gives you a nice introduction to how search engines do their thing:
Watched it? Great!
Now, let’s move on to the intricacies of the inner workings of SEO.
The Phases of SEO
You might be surprised to learn that SEO can be broken down into three main phases:
- Keyword Research
- On-Page SEO
- Off-Page SEO
Keyword research represents the phase where you research and choose the main keywords you want to rank for on Google, and includes steps like:
- Researching potential keywords
- Checking keyword competition
- Determining user intent
This phase will dictate how you approach both the second and third SEO phases.
(Pssst … wanna learn how to kill it with keyword research? Then you need to check out this guide.)
Next comes on-page SEO, where you create a post about your chosen keyword and optimize the content of that post to guarantee that Google knows which keyword you’re targeting.
This phase includes steps like:
- Creating in-depth, valuable content
- Choosing LSI keywords
- Using keyword-rich header tags
- Adding external and internal links
- Optimizing page load speed
Once your post is published, it’s time to focus on the final phase of SEO.
Off-page SEO is where you prove to Google that your page is worthy of being ranked on the first page (preferably positions 1-3) for your target keyword.
The three core components of off-page SEO are:
- Link building
- Social media promotion
- Brand mentions
And of these three, link building is by far the most important.
Which is why, now that you know the basic SEO process, we turn our attention to what link building is and why it’s crucial to SEO success.
Part 2: Understanding Link Building
In this section, I’ll give you the basics behind link building: what it is, how it works and the various link types associated with it.
What Are Backlinks?
A backlink is a link from another site that points back to your own site.
(Hence the name “backlink.”)
So every time Site A links to Site B, a backlink is created.
For example, this link on Monitor Backlinks (highlighted in yellow) when clicked …
… takes you to this page:
The result is that Ninja Outreach now has a backlink from Monitor Backlinks.
Why Are Backlinks Important?
Backlinks are important because they act as a “vote of confidence” from one site to another.
It’s like saying that Site A vouches for the content being presented on Site B. They’re telling others that Site B’s content is valuable and worth paying attention to.
This is especially important for SEO because search engines take great interest in the number of backlinks pointing back to a specific page or site.
The more quality “votes of confidence” a page has, the better it looks to search engines.
Link Building: The Art of Earning Backlinks
Earning more backlinks to your site is one of the most powerful off-page SEO strategies you can implement.
This process of earning more backlinks is called link building.
And it’s been proven countless times just how essential and powerful link building is for SEO.
For instance, Google officially announced that link building is one of their top three ranking factors:
And research published by Brian Dean of Backlinko reveals that link building, especially in regards to the number of referring domains, has the greatest effect on rankings:
At the end of the day, you can optimize your site and pages to your heart’s content …
… but if you don’t have any backlinks pointing to your site, you simply won’t rank on Google.
Backlinks are essential. There’s no way around it.
The Two Classifications Every Backlink Falls Under
Every single link ever created on the internet is either followed or nofollowed.
Followed links are links that search engines take into consideration when ranking your site.
In other words:
They’re links that earn you “points” with search engines. These points can be either positive or negative.
Positive points come from quality backlinks from relevant sites, while negative points come from spammy and unnatural backlinks. (More on this in just a sec.)
Either way, positive or negative, followed links will affect your SEO and rankings.
Nofollowed links are links that search engines do not consider when ranking your site.
As far as they’re concerned, these links don’t exist for ranking purposes.
That’s not to say that they’re not valuable …
… but for our purposes of using link building to boost our SEO, nofollowed links should only be an inadvertent byproduct of your link building efforts.
5 Major Sub-Classifications of Links
After followed and nofollowed links, classification of link types becomes broader and more impactful to SEO (if they’re followed links, of course).
There are five major sub-classifications of links:
1. High-Quality Links
These are the 24-karat gold links of the SEO world.
High-quality links are exactly what they sound like—links from top-quality sites that have a large following, are considered authoritative and tend to rank high on search engines themselves.
Typical characteristics of high-quality links include:
- Editorially placed inside high value content
- High Page Authority and Domain Authority
- Relevant to site’s niche or industry
- Site gets lots of traffic
- Anchor text is natural and non-commercial
2. Low-Quality Links
If high-quality links are 24-karat, then low-quality links are 10-karat gold.
Low-quality links don’t provide as much link juice as high-quality links. But they still add value. Get enough of them and you will see improvements in your rankings.
Low-quality links tend to come from sites that are less popular than their high-quality counterparts, and typically have the following characteristics:
- Editorially placed inside mid-to-low value content
- Low Page Authority and Domain Authority
- Relevant to site’s niche or industry
- Site gets a lower amount of traffic
- Anchor text is natural and non-commercial
3. Relevant Links
This link type consists of links that are similar to the site they’re linking to. For example, NBA.com linking to a site on basketball training.
Relevant links carry more weight than non-relevant links.
Using the basketball training example again, the link from NBA.com will naturally carry more weight than one from HollywoodReporter.com.
Your focus should be on earning high-quality links from relevant sites.
4. Natural Links
These are links that are naturally placed inside of content. By “naturally placed” I mean placed there by an actual human for the purpose of adding real value to their audience.
Examples include links placed to verify quoted data and statistics, or placed to direct the audience to a relevant piece of valuable content.
The opposite of this type of link would be one that’s placed for commercial purposes (i.e. a paid link) that seeks to manipulate search engine rankings.
You always want your portfolio to be filled with followed natural links.
5. Spammy Links (or Unnatural Links)
Up to this point, all link types I mentioned add positive points to SEO.
Spammy links are of the negative points variety. Meaning you want to avoid them at all costs.
Having too many spammy links pointing to your site can result in a loss of rankings, penalization or even complete de-indexing by search engines.
The most common spammy link types include:
- Paid followed links
- Comment spam
- Anchor text-heavy links
- Footer and sidebar widget links
- Low-quality directory links
Backlinks can be any combination of the above types.
For instance, you can have high-quality, nofollowed links or relevant, low-quality followed links or even, on a rare occasion, high-quality, spammy followed links.
And because of all of these different combinations of backlink types, it’s important that you have a solid understanding of how SEO and link building work together.
Part 3: How SEO Works with Link Building
As I mentioned earlier, links have been at the core of search engine rankings since Google’s inception back in 1998.
And they remain key to SEO to this day.
According to Backlinko, Google uses 46 backlink-related ranking factors.
And Google takes each of these factors into account when they’re deciding how to index a page and where to rank it in their search results.
These factors cover a range of link-based categories like:
- Backlink location
- Anchor text
- Backlink amounts
- Site type
… and they all affect SEO to some degree.
So each new backlink you acquire will be under the scrutiny of Google’s various ranking algorithms and then compared with your already existing backlinks.
This information, when taken together, helps Google decide (along with the other ranking factors) how your site and its pages will rank in their search results.
The more factors the backlink satisfies, the higher the perceived quality of the link.
And the more backlinks you have with a higher perceived value, the higher your site and pages will rank on search engines.
Let’s look at an example scenario to show how link building can work with SEO.
Example of a Backlink and Its Effect on SEO
Let’s say you just scored a new backlink from a high authority site.
Google’s algorithms compare that link to their list of 46 backlink-related ranking factors and conclude that it satisfies 37 of those factors.
Congrats! You have yourself a high-quality backlink.
Now, Google will look at the rest of your backlinks and all other ranking factors, compare them to other sites targeting this particular keyword, and adjust the rankings accordingly.
Let’s say you now have 140 backlinks pointing to your page, but your top three competitors ranking for your target keyword have between 180-200 backlinks each.
Eesh … that stings.
But, your backlink came from one of the top sites in your industry. The best of the best. High Domain Authority, lots of traffic and everything in between.
Ends up that one backlink was enough to catapult you from the 7th position up to the 2nd position.
A couple more backlinks of that caliber and you could soon be in the #1 spot and receive around 33% of all search traffic from that keyword.
That’s just one real-world example of how link building can do fantastic things for SEO.
And in the next section, I’m going to show you how you can use link building to achieve results like this one.
Part 4: How to Use Link Building to Rank Higher on Search Engines
This post wouldn’t be complete without a section that covers a few key strategies to use to start ranking higher on search engines.
And I’m going to start off by letting you in on a secret that, if taken to heart, will change the way you approach link building moving forward.
You ready for it?
At the end of the day, effective link building boils down to two key characteristics: quality and quantity.
Any link building tip or strategy you come across will fall under one of these categories.
The basic strategy is really that simple:
To rank high on search engines for your target keywords, you need to have more and better quality backlinks than those sites currently ranking on the first page.
Now, let’s dig a little deeper into each characteristic:
Quality is the more important characteristic out of the two.
That’s because over the years Google has placed more importance on quality backlinks versus the number of backlinks a site has.
It makes sense when you think about it:
First, quality is more difficult to fake than quantity.
Any site can fairly easily find inventive ways to get more low-quality sources to link to their site. But, it takes much more effort to convince high-quality sites to give you a link.
Second, quality is a more reliable gauge for determining a site or page’s value.
A site with an editorial link from the New York Times will automatically be more trusted than a site with 20 backlinks from a bunch of no-name blogs.
Google wants to showcase pages that add the most value to their users, and pages that have earned natural links from high-quality, authoritative sources tend to have that value.
Don’t let what I said about quality mislead you:
Link quantity is still a very important ranking factor for Google and other major search engines.
(It always has been, and most likely always will be.)
Link quantity is all about the total number of backlinks pointing back to your site.
It’s also called link popularity, and that’s exactly what it represents …
… because ultimately, link building for SEO is a popularity contest.
Here’s the way Google has viewed link popularity ever since Larry Page created PageRank:
If a page has more backlinks, then it most likely has better content.
Each backlink is a “vote of confidence” vouching for the value of the page it’s linking to.
So more votes equal more confidence.
Quality + Quantity = Page One
The question now is which area should you focus on first: quality or quantity?
The answer is both.
Because when you can combine the two, true link building magic happens.
A large number of high-quality backlinks from authoritative sites trumps a couple of high-quality backlinks mixed with several low-quality backlinks any day of the week.
Your link building strategy from the start should be geared towards earning as many high-quality backlinks as you possibly can.
This might sound difficult if your site is new.
But it’s 100% doable, and easier than you think. (Just ask David Farkas.)
All you need to do is focus on consistently executing a few key link building strategies that are specifically designed to earn you more high-quality links.
Here they are:
Create Link-Worthy Content
This is a fancy way of saying to create content that your audience will appreciate so much that they’ll willingly promote it without your asking them.
Uniquely valuable and actionable content is hands-down the most powerful means of getting tons of high-quality natural backlinks to your pages.
And Google tends to agree with me on this one.
What makes a page high quality? Straight from the horse’s (Google’s) mouth:
“A High quality page should have a beneficial purpose and achieve that purpose well.
In addition, High quality pages have the following characteristics:
- High level of Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T).
- A satisfying amount of high quality MC, including a descriptive or helpful title.
- Satisfying website information and/or information about who is responsible for the website. If the page is primarily for shopping or includes financial transactions, then it should have satisfying customer service information.
- Positive website reputation for a website that is responsible for the MC on the page. Positive reputation of the creator of the MC, if different from that of the website.”
Here are three resources I highly recommend you check out about creating stellar content:
- How to Create High-Quality Content by Search Engine Journal
- The Nine Ingredients That Make Great Content by Neil Patel
- The Skyscraper Technique SEO Guide by Monitor Backlinks
Guest Blog/Contribute to Other Sites
Back in 2014, Matt Cutts stated that guest blogging was dead …
… and everyone lost their minds!
But they took it out of context. Matt wasn’t saying that all guest blogging was dead. He was stating that the spammy type of guest blogging that only cared about rank manipulation was dead.
Guest blogging as a way of naturally getting high-quality backlinks and building brand reputation is still very much alive.
The same rules for creating link-worthy content also apply to guest blogging.
Only now you’re creating it for someone else’s site—preferably someone in a related niche whose site is capable of earning your brand more exposure.
Justin McGill wrote a helpful guide on how to get consistent guest blogging opportunities. I recommend you check it out.
Relationship Building Outreach
Outreach is nothing more than reaching out to like-minded people, establishing and building relationships with them, and eventually acquiring backlinks/traffic from your efforts.
These people can be:
- Other site owners
- Followers and fans on social media
- Key influencers in your industry
- Or any other person/entity that can grow your backlink portfolio
The key thing to remember about outreach is to not be off-putting when making initial contact.
You want to keep things loose and conversational. Approach it with the mindset that your main goal is to build true, lasting relationships and you’ll be set up for success.
What’s great about this strategy is that over time, some of your initial outreach relationships will blossom and lead to new connections and new relationships.
That’s when you’ll really reap the benefits of your outreach efforts.
Elise Dopson recently wrote an incredible post on link building outreach complete with email templates that you can swipe at your leisure. I highly recommend you read it.
Part 5: How to Track Your SEO and Link Building Progress
I can’t express enough how important it is to track your progress both for SEO and link building.
Monitor Backlinks lets you monitor both from one convenient location.
So before we wrap this post up (and send you on your way to start building some epic backlinks), I wanted to show you how to set both SEO and backlink monitoring up on Monitor Backlinks.
(P.S. If you’re not yet a member of Monitor Backlinks, you can sign up for a free, no-risk 30-day trial here. No credit card required.)
Setting Up SEO Keyword Tracking
Monitor Backlinks’ Keyword module lets you enter your pages’ target keywords into your account so Monitor Backlinks can regularly track their ranking progress in Google’s search results.
To set it up:
First, log in to Monitor Backlinks and go to the Keyword module by clicking on “Keywords” at the left of your Main Dashboard:
Next, on the Keywords page, click the plus icon on the top-right to add keywords:
This will take you to a new page where you can enter any keywords you want to track on Google.
You can add as many keywords as you’d like by adding a new keyword and then pressing Enter. Any duplicate keywords will automatically be skipped and new keywords can be added at any time.
Once your keywords are added, click the “Add keywords” button …
… and the keywords will be added to your Keyword module’s database:
After about 1-2 hours, your keywords will start being tracked.
Which means Monitor Backlinks will update the current position, best historical position and other relevant ranking data.
One other super-valuable feature of the Keyword module is that if your added competitors are trying to rank for the same keyword, it will track their position on Google as well.
In due time, your list will resemble something like this:
You can then sort and filter this list by Ranking, Search Volume, Competitor Position and any other available keyword metric.
Setting Up Backlink Tracking
Monitor Backlinks’ link tracking is top-of-class.
Here’s just a small selection of what it does for your site’s backlinks:
- Get in-depth details about your backlinks, including:
- Link Status
- MozRank and Majestic stats
- Google Index status
- External link counts
- Instantly see which backlinks have the highest potential of being spammy
- Advanced Sort and Filter functions
- View each backlink’s anchor text
- And more
Seriously, this software does it all.
Here’s how to set it up:
First, you need to add your domain to Monitor Backlinks.
Do this by clicking the drop-down button at the top left of the main dashboard followed by the “Add new domain” button …
… and follow the steps on the following pages to add your domain for tracking.
Once your domain is added, you’ll be able to access the Backlink module and view your list of existing backlinks:
This module contains several important pieces of info pertaining to your backlinks.
I’ve numbered the major areas in the image above. Here’s what each one represents:
1. Total Backlinks. Tells you your total number of backlinks along with your number of followed backlinks (“Links that Google considers”), nofollowed backlinks (“Links that Google ignores”), links with warnings and links without warnings.
2. Date. Tells you the date the backlink was created.
3. Linking Page. Gives you information about the source of the backlink including its domain name and page title.
4. Anchor & Backlink. Tells you the page on your site that the backlink points to, and the anchor text used.
5. Status. Tells you the current status of the backlink and whether the source’s domain and page have been indexed by Google.
6. Trust Flow. Predicts how trustworthy the source site is based on the number and quality of backlinks pointing to it.
7. Citation Flow. Predicts how much influence the source website has.
8. Spam. Tells you the probability that the site is spam based on Moz’s Spam Score metric.
9. MozRank. Shows you the power of the source’s domain and page.
10. Domain Authority. Predicts how well the source site will rank on search engines.
11. Page Authority. Predicts how well the source site’s page will rank on search engines.
12. TLD/IP. Tells you the locations of the source site’s top-level domain and IP address.
13. EXT. Shows you the number of external links originating on the source site’s page.
14. Visits. Tells you the number of Google Analytics visits from the backlink.
Do you see the power in having all of this information at your fingertips?
To cover the intricacies of each one of these categories would turn this already long post into one that would require its own dedicated website!
That being said, I’m going to point you to a couple of key guides on our blog that will help you put all of this priceless information to good use:
- How to Identify Bad Backlinks That Drag Your Rankings Down
- How to Win the SEO Popularity Contest with Your Backlink Graph
Now You’re Ready to Get Started
You now know the ins and outs of the workings of SEO and link building …
… in addition to how to start getting more high-quality backlinks pointing back to your site.
Here’s my advice for you:
First, sign up for Monitor Backlinks so you can start tracking both your SEO and link building progress.
Next, take a long look at this post and review Google’s current ranking factors.
Then, brainstorm and create a game plan for targeting quality backlink sources using the link building generation strategies I laid out for you above.
(If you’re looking for even more link building ideas, check out this resource.)
Finally, put your plan into action. Immediately.
Take it one day at a time. Step by step. And I promise you’ll bear the fruits of your labor.