We like to think that there are phases to SEO.

Phase 1 is an often overlooked but critical component of SEO: technical SEO. This is not on-page or off-page, but almost “in-page”, including a lot of sitemaps, source code, crawling, indexing, mobile load times, and more. The purpose of this phase is to make sure that Google can find your pages, crawl them, render them quickly, and render them as a mobile device would. Other things like site architecture and scripts can also be meaningful in this phase of technical SEO.

Technical SEO would also include simple, on-page SEO best practices, like updating your header tags, page titles, and page body text to include the keywords you want to rank for.

Once you set all that up, you might be ready for the second phase in SEO, which is a much more long-term strategy, as it requires more of a time investment: link acquisition.

Backlinks are links on other people’s websites that, well, link back to your site.

They help search engines determine the authority and relevance of your website on the topic you rank for. They also serve as an endorsement from other websites saying, “Hey, we think this content is worth reading.”

The authority aspect of backlinking is determined by WHERE your site is being linked to and from whom. Websites that receive more traffic offer more “authority,” thus boosting your rank more than a smaller, third-party website.

Sometimes these links are included in the context of an article, sometimes on explicit pages, such as “Suggested Resources” or “Preferred Providers”, and sometimes in comments.

Now, there are GOOD ways to generate backlinks, and then there are some ways that are going to bite you in the long run.

Here’s what you DON’T want to do:

  • Spam comment boxes on other websites just to get a backlink. These will actually hurt your ranking over time.
  • Spam people by flooding their inboxes with request for links for content that isn’t worth its weight.
  • Buy backlinks. Many popular sites, such as Forbes and Entrepreneur, have restrictions on backlinks that prohibit columnists from featuring paid clients in their pieces. If you want to read more about how this will bite you in the ass, we recommend checking out this Buzzfeed read.

Ok, so now we know what NOT to do, but what are some things that you SHOULD be doing to generate backlinks?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but some of my recommendations on navigating link acquisition.

Scoop up low-hanging fruit.

Your local Chamber of Commerce. The Better Business Bureau. Local (and national) professional organizations. Charities. Vendors. Friends. Customers with online presences. These are all very simple ways to turn relationships into link building friends. Regardless of your business type, it’s based in relationships — people you with, for, and alongside of. Scoop up that low-hanging fruit before you stretch your wins.

Create something of value.

Not just for the websites you want to secure links from, but their audiences and yours. Do your homework and have a keen understanding of what the website’s audience looks like, what content they consume, and what pieces of content on the website have looked like recently. What content holes do you see? What themes seem to be getting the most play? If they’re high on your link prospecting list, then spending a little extra time focusing on what will whet their link appetite can be a good investment.

Build a content promotion strategy.

Rather than doing the above on a link-by-link basis, take time to develop a true content promotion strategy that will identify the people who will share your content, and more importantly, those who will link to it. Networking with other people in your niche is a great way to get your content out to a larger audience. This is where being active online can be a huge asset. You’re probably active on many social networks and connected to many of the right people already. Now you need to harness that power and get strategic to spread your content to even more people who may re-share or link to it.

Be a source.

Earn links by putting yourself out there. Create news, report on news, and help connect reporters/bloggers to those who can help them tell a great story. Services like HARO can be a great (albeit noisy) way to connect with reporters looking for a source, as can simply eavesdropping on social media conversations. See someone asking a question? Do you have the answer? Do you know someone who will? Get into that conversation and be the connector. Start a rapport with people before you ever need them. Make sure they know what you do for a living, who your business reaches, and the areas that you’re an expert in. Then, when there’s an opportunity to localize a national news story or when your business is doing something that’s worthy of coverage, reach out and pitch yourself. Soon, you’ll notice the press hunting you down, not the other way around.

Wear your media relations hat (not just your Google one).

This sounds crazy, considering link building is often done purely for Google rankings. BUT, consider what would happen if Google did NOT exist. Would you still want that link from a domain if there were little to no referral traffic coming from it? If not, why ask for it now? Instead focus on sites where your audience is likely to be engaging.

There are many seemingly low authority websites that drive consistent referral traffic with super high engagement and are worth their weight in gold. Conversely, there are seemingly high domain authority websites that look great on paper, but no one actually clicks through the links. Balance link building efforts to account for both search engines AND referral-based traffic.

Host an event.

Host an event — online or in real life — and invite people to it. Maybe it’s a gathering to raise money for a family in need within your community, an event that says “thanks” to your great employees, or an opportunity to give away some free stuff. Whatever you decide to do, cause a ruckus, let people know what you’re doing, and invite the media to it. If you’re lucky, you’ll not only get some links, you’ll also get some great photos and social media content.

Ask. But do it smart.

Lots of experts will tell you it’s in bad taste to ask for a link. We’ll tell you that if spent time finding a relevant being (a site, a person, a smart robot), have worked to build a relationship with them, AND have created something highly-useful you think they (and their audiences) would love, then you should absolutely ask for the link. When doing so, craft the email to be about the value exchange NOT the link. Even with good content, no one will look at it if the pitch consists of “hey I’d like a link please.” Instead, get the prospect to take a look at the piece of content. Use tracking URLs so you can SEE that they took a look before re-engaging the prospect and working toward a link. Very few links are secured through one-off, cold emails. Just like any “lead” – nurture, nurture, nurture.

There you have it – some excellent suggestions for creating backlinks that will stand the test of time (and won’t get you outed for link buying).

Got questions about backlinks? Leave them in the comments and one of our SEO strategists will respond. :)