The Basics of Link Building: What You Need to Know

By Lisa Hirst Carnes | December 2021


Search engine optimization (SEO) is an integral part of growing any organization's presence online. In pre-Google times, when search engines were in their infancy, it was enough to simply stuff as many keywords into your text as possible. This resulted in cluttered pages that offered a poor experience for users. 

Fast forward a couple of decades.

Now search engines want to provide the best results possible to keep their market share high. They've also gotten pickier about how they rank results. One of the big factors in modern SEO is link building. You've probably heard this term before but might not know much about what it is or how to go about it. In this post, we'll go over the basics to get your business on the track to greater organic search engine traffic.

What is link building?

As you go about creating content for your site, you no doubt link out to other sources. This is especially true in blog posts and other forms of content marketing. By providing links to a trusted source, you are confirming to your readers that what you are saying is true and that they can trust your knowledge on the subject. But link building for SEO isn't about you linking to other sites. It's about other sites linking to you. This is what makes link building one of the trickier aspects of SEO; you don't have full control over it. While you can't directly place links to your site on other sites, you can certainly take some steps to help improve the chances of it happening. Link building is the process of building up a long list of links to your site from credible, outside sources. 

Why does it matter?

Outside links serve two purposes for search engines. The first is simple, it lets the search engine's crawler know that a page exists so that it too can be crawled and added to the database. This can be useful when you are just starting out, but once your site has grown enough that its primary pages are already being indexed, the inner pages will be crawled that way. Assuming, of course, that your site's navigation makes it possible to get to those pages from the more prominent ones.

The real benefit of link building comes from the same philosophy that causes people to place links in the first place. You link to outside sources to use their reputation to build your own. If a lot of people are linking to the same outside source, search engines can make a reasonable assumption that the domain of those links contains trustworthy information, and will feel more confident in recommending that domain to search users. This results in a higher page rank.

That isn't the whole story though. Just as people abused keywords before outside links became a criterion, link building itself was once easily gamed. Link spamming on sites that allow user content but don't use the nofollow tag or on sites designed purely to provide links without any meaningful content of their own became common. In addition, pages that aren't very trustworthy tend to be linked to mostly by other pages that aren't very trustworthy. For this reason, search engines have adapted, so link quantity alone is not the sole measure. Link quality is now of equal importance. 

What are the benefits of links?

It's easy to think of link building as simply something you do to increase your search engine traffic. That certainly may be what got the practice on your radar, but it brings many other benefits to organizations as well. Approaching link building from a more holistic perspective will not only allow you to maximize these other benefits but will also ensure that you're building the type of high-quality links that search engines look for when they are ranking pages. 

  • Better brand awareness - Some industries have sites that everyone knows about. If you're reading medical information, it isn't uncommon to see links to WebMD, Healthline, or Mayo Clinic. One of the reasons these sites are so well known is precisely because so many people link to them as trusted resources. The same is true of your organization; more links means more brand awareness.
  • Increased referral traffic - The medical sites mentioned above rank very highly in search results (A testament to the power of link-building), but many people who visit them do so from the very links that gave them that high page ranking. When you get a lot of sites linking to yours, the links themselves can become a major source of organic traffic, in addition to the benefits of search rankings.
  • Improved networking - One of the major parts of link building is reaching out to other people in your industry and convincing them to link to you. In the process of building these links, you're also building relationships with organizations that are complementary to your own that you may be able to collaborate with later, and to influencers who can help you grow your business.

The anatomy of a link

Aside from the starting and ending tags telling a web browser which sections of the page are a link, there are two main sections in a link's anatomy: the link text, and the linked URL. Both of these are important to how search engines view your page. Thankfully, because you create your own URL, you have complete control over how that section appears to search engines on other sites. While you don't have control over the link text used on other sites, knowing how search engines evaluate it is useful for your own internal links. 

How to spot a good quality link?

Search engines are all about quality. They want to present users with the most relevant information possible. In order to match the relevance of a page with a user's search term, web crawlers need as much information about the page as possible. High-quality links will have link text and linked URLs that help to provide greater context for the search engine. The philosophy for both of these pieces of information is similar and is outlined in Google's own SEO starter guide.

  • Link text - When site visitors view a link's text, they are looking for information about what they will find when they click on it. While readers can use surrounding context clues, search engines can't. Putting a description of the linked content in the link text helps search engines decide what the relevance of the link is. 
  • Linked URL - The same is true of the URL. While a search engine's algorithm can glean a lot of information about a page based on its content, a descriptive URL gives it a better idea about what the core idea of a page is and allows it to more accurately target it for improved search relevance. 

Link building outreach - tips and tricks

Now that you know what you should do link building outreach, it's a good idea to take a look at some tips to do it effectively. While this could be an entire post of its own, there are some key things to keep in mind when doing outreach:

  • Personalize your message - The bigger the organization or influencer, the more outreach emails they are going to get. Many of these emails are going to be completely automated, or appear to be completely automated. That's a quick way to get ignored. Using the recipient's name and making specific references to their work lets them know that you're a real person and increases the chances they'll respond positively. 
  • Sell yourself - It isn't enough to ask someone to link to your site or to a piece of content you've written. You must sell yourself. Why is your site or that piece of content relevant to them? How will their readers benefit from the information you have to offer? Your recipient isn't going to take the time to search for this information on their own. 
  • Be direct - Don't beat around the bush. People don't have time to play games with you. If you want them to link to a certain page, or if you want to build a more ongoing link-building relationship, let them know. 
  • Follow up - Keep track of who has responded to your emails and send a follow-up to those who haven't. They may be ignoring you, but they may also have just gotten busy and forgotten about your email. A quick reminder can be enough to get them to take action. 
  • Be polite - If they deny your request, you should remain polite. Obviously, don't send a rude response to them. But also remember to send some type of response. A polite email thanking them for their time will help build the relationship for the next bit of content you want linked to. 

Digital marketing and SEO are full-time jobs. If you'd rather focus on your core competencies and let someone else handle the work of promoting your organization, contact us today.  Our team of experts can improve your search engine ranking and put you on the road to sustained growth. 

Topics: Digital Marketing

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