John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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What is SEO Link Building?

At first it seems pretty obvious what “link building” is… it is the practice of building back links to your site. But in the SEO marketplace, it is NOT clear today what “link building” is. What, exactly are you getting when you hire and pay a link builder? What are reasonable expectations for paid link building?

Today more than any time in the past I can remember, the service of link building lacks clarity in the marketplace. I’ve been doing SEO professionally for 7 years, and SEO was part of my job for almost 6 years before that. I’ve always done link building, but not the way I do it today. So what do professional link builders do for you today?

6 Aspects of Modern Day SEO Link Building

There are 6 obvious aspects to modern SEO link building. Some are integral to SEO, as you will see below, so in effect there are more than 6 aspects but these 6 get us started:

Link Building Foundations

Your content must be “linkable”, which means it has to present itself as something unique on the web. It doesn’t need to be truly unique as in one-of-a-kind, but within its target audience, it must appear unique and thus link worthy. This also means your content must be identified with unique URLs, so linking is possible. The foundations of link building require that your site work properly, be reasonably navigable and recognizable, and be “able to be linked to”.

Link to It, and Build Sites/Pages for Linking

Once your content is “linkable”, link builders link to it. They may adjust your within-site linking, or make use of your existing sub domain published content, your other owned sites, or sites where you have influence, to get links in to your site. A link builder will identify which pages of your site should be supported with links, and what sort of links will bring the most benefit. Link builders may have existing sites that can link to your site, or they may build new sites (or publish content on other sites) to carry more links to your site. Article writers do this, as do social media managers who create profiles on other sites linking to your site.

Link builders may create new sites in order to use them for link building, or may build new sites as extensions of your site, to benefit link building. These methods can be valuable, but care must be taken to align the activities with SEO activities (to protect your brand and your site SEO status).

This is link building at its fundamental core, and surprisingly many site owners have not engaged in this most basic form of link building.

Extending the Foundation with Directories

Professional directories and “listing” sites present opportunities for additional link building. Anywhere your competitors appear, you should consider. Your link builder explores such opportunities, and recognizes the ones that might have the biggest impact. Your link builder should also create links to you, and will want to expense any editorial fees or perhaps management fees associated with such links.

Good link builders know the difference between meaningful, powerful directory links and low-quality, questionable directory links. Oh, and not every “directory” is called a “directory” and this is another area where professional link builders bring value for those who hire them.

Link Building Innovation

Good link builders innovate to cause the marketplace to link to your content. Innovation might be content-based (infographics, interesting and remarkable content) or technology-based (such as new systems that make it easy to “recommend” your content via links), or activity-based (activity on exiting sites such as forums prompts linking to your site from third party locations). There is no limit to innovation, but of course innovation requires creativity, skill, and perseverance.

The best link builders rely on innovation first, and build their strategies out from there to suit your particular site’s needs. The innovative SEO link builder is sort of the opposite of the link builder who has a secret network of sites on Topic X which he will link to your site for a monthly fee. Link building must match your site’s unique positioning and needs, and your link builder should consider everything in the toolbox when forming a link building strategy.

Copy-Cat Link Building

I call this sadly common tactic “copy cat link building” mostly because I get copied a lot and don’t enjoy it. A copy cat link builder simply does what you did to get links for herself, after you already did it.

If you find a webmaster willing to give a link, and convince her to do so, the copy cat follows up with a request for a link to her site, too, sometimes even pointing out your link as rationale for her link. If you publish a list of “10 Favorite Thanksgiving Dinner Table Jokes” that gets a lot of attention in the marketplace, you’ll probably see 4 or 5 copy cats publishing “5 Favorite Thanksgiving Jokes” and similar rip offs shortly after, since your efforts demonstrated such copy cats can be expected to similarly resonate well in the marketplace.

By copying your innovation, creativity, and research, the copy-cat link builder eliminated much of the costs of link building, instead stepping in to steal market share from your link building instead of growing the link building opportunity base. It becomes a race of social media seeding, instead of link building.

Fortunately, Mother Nature built in some natural controls for such cheats and scammers. First, they put competitive pressure on you (the innovator) to be even better than you are. As you get even better, the copy cats have more trouble keeping up. Second,  cheats and scammers generally cheat and scam in everything they do (not just link building). Copy-cats tend to earn poor reputations for themselves over time, which lead to less effective social media networking and this less ability to beat you on execution.

Still, copy cat link building can be effective for the short term, and can definitely piss you off.

Integrated Link Building / Competitive Web Strategy

This is where modern SEO link builders really shine. Working closely with the web strategist or lead SEO, a good innovative, experienced, and technically skilled link builder can propose a strategy with a high probability of success in a given marketplace. Using existing content (which may need re-positioning or adjusting), or by creating new, complimentary content, the SEO and link builder work together to draw quality inbound links to your site. Nothing gets published until it is “link worthy”. Nothing gets published without additional promotion designed to draw links. No link is built without consideration for how it impacts the site and its SEO status. In short, integrated link building is part of SEO.

A Few Tips for Working with Link Builders

As always, keep your goals and objectives in mind and be transparent about them with your link builder. Ask, “what is my current link profile” before they start. Ask them to qualify it… tell you in writing how it looks. The same qualification will be asked after some months of link building, and the link builder should be held accountable for progress. If you are told your existing links are low quality, as why. Ask which ones are low quality, and how do they know. Use this to judge the quality of new links built.

What about examples of prior work or an outline of what will be done before a contract is signed? This is tough, and if you read the above 6 aspects it might become clear why some link builders balk at such a request.

If they use a “secret network of owned sites” to link to you, they won’t reveal that network or they could put it at risk. You should consider your own risk of working with such a link builder.

If they rely on innovation and strategy, they won’t have the answers before work starts. They won’t know what works for your site and your market until they do the research and perhaps some testing. The link builder can propose broad categories of efforts like quizzes, infographics, surveys, and curated collections (of images, of links), but not specifics. When you pay a good link builder for more than just links from existing sites, you are paying them to answer that question for you.

As with any activity, there is art and science to link building, but no one has yet shown magic to be real in any context.  Don’t pay for magic… pay for performance, results, or link building, and set aside adequate detail in the beginning so you and your link builder can point at the outcomes of efforts and agree on how good or bad they are. And most importantly, remember that link building requires a certain degree of persuasion of the marketplace (those who make links). No link builder can guarantee third parties will freely build links to your site,  but you and your link builder can definitely agree on what represents honest effort, what constitutes a hit or a miss, and how your money will be spent during a link building engagement.

Update: We’re looking for link builders of all styles and capacities. Send email to info at this domain with your pitch or other details. Don’t be shy… if you’re up front with your style/approach/capabilities you are more likely to be considered. I also have a trusted directory of link builders you may want to be in, which I will consider.

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4 Responses to “What is SEO Link Building?”

  1. emanuele Says:

    the thing I love most in link building is that I always learn something new. the most interesting thing for me right now is the role of social networks in link building and therefore the role of the no follow. from my experience I am convinced that no follow passes popularity in certain situations, such as popular social network profiles and pages with high page rank. what do you think about it? bye emanuele

  2. SE Says:

    Link building is one sure way to get you on top of google listing.
    Try not to link to unrelated niche because it might do more harm than good.
    Many people thought they can just get as many link as they want but we always believe quality is better than quantity.

  3. Martypants Says:

    This was a great, succinct post John - covered a lot. On my own site, I added a link to it yesterday on a page where I recommended the latest Rae post on linkbuilding - I think this goes well with the work of that post, and helps round out the whole linkbuilding picture in 2010. Thanks for writing it all out, so now I can just point people here rather than try to explain it.

  4. Ryan @ Linkbuildr Says:

    Great tips John! I find these days building up those business relationships via social media is netting the best links for the long run. I never would have thought Twitter would be such a great tool to get your foot in the door…especially since email link requests are next to impossible to scale these days.

    The broken link method is also great and it also allows for a different approach when contact webmasters.

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