Alongside on-page SEO, high-quality backlinks remain Google’s crucial ranking factor. Tough competition in search gave rise to costly manipulative tactics with links. But what should you do with little to no budget for link building? We asked Lukasz Zelezny, SEO London’s expert, to share his view on white-hat link building.
You will learn where to find good-quality backlinks and what tactics are actionable in 2022. Along with the interview, we added some tips to help you handle these techniques.
1. Hi Lukasz, thank you for having this talk with us, I am sure we’ll have something interesting to learn. So, the first question that I believe is urgent for anyone who needs to rank a website. Imagine an unknown company has just launched a new website. Where does it get its first high-quality backlinks?
There is no silver bullet, you know. I think there are at least two ways to get your first backlink sources. For example, start with approaching all these blogs that are making lists of the best tools for XYZ. So, building backlinks for products or tools, you can try to get listed in listicles, that would be the first idea.
Second, there are high-quality citation websites that are still linking dofollow. An online citation with a mention of a company name, address, and phone number is helpful for local SEO rankings. These can be local business directories or niche-specific directories, it depends.
So, my suggestion would be to identify these citation websites linking with dofollow and get links from them.
2. Then, what are your top three tactics to build free backlinks?
First of all, I always track brand mentions for my surname which works quite well. It is a little unusual surname and name combination for all: Lukasz is Polish and Zelezny is Chech, so it’s quite original.
Any brand name which is a made up-word: we are talking about brands like, for example, Yahoo, Zoopla, or Trivago, that's quite easy. So, every time you find an unlinked brand mention, you can approach that mention and ask if a person is willing to add a link to your website.
Second, I can see that very often for established websites, some links are pointing to the pages that don't exist anymore. For example, there is a link pointing to my website.com/about us, and this page ‘about us’ doesn't exist any longer, and this link is pointing to 404. For such cases, I always try to catch these kinda black holes and redirect through a 301 to better destinations.
You can use SEO SpyGlass backlink checker to find broken links on your domain (or any other competitors’ domain as well).
Another tactic is to check who is linking from external websites to your social media profiles rather than to your website. For example, in my case, there are 160 domains linking to my Twitter. Very often people who mention you, especially for personal brands, prefer linking to LinkedIn or Twitter profiles rather than to the desired website.
So, the same as with the unlinked brand mentions, I'm trying to approach them and ask them for adding the link.
Awario’s Boolean search allows tracking unlinked mentions for your brand easily. Set up the rule as follows, and the social listening tool will discover linkless mentions on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere in blogs or the news.
3. What about broken link building, infographics, PDFs, or email marketing?
Absolutely yes, it’s like I said in the first question, it’s like identifying a broken link. Because you can go both ways. One way is to identify where there are broken places on your website: find the page that doesn't exist, and have links from external websites pointing to the right page.
Or, second, there are situations where you just fix a broken link by approaching a website and saying “hey, you have a broken link here, and by the way, we have a site that is also relevant, and so on”.
Both methods are relatively time-consuming and need to be done on a scale. If you want to amplify your outreach, you can use tools like Woodpecker.co. This is a fantastic way to speed up the process when you have to identify a list of potential partners.
4. What about outdated tactics? What are your top three no-go tactics in link building?
The first tactic to mention is automatic link exchange systems that are spreading links in the footer.
Definitely, a no-go is linking from free WordPress templates as a sponsored link, the way it worked ten or fifteen years ago. For example, on the Digital Point Forum, people used such templates often to kind of sponsor with your link.
In a free template, that link went circulating, and at the end of the day, you had absolutely no control over your backlinks: they were coming from completely irrelevant pages and websites, and it was a mess because it was almost impossible to clean this up.
Another no-go would be PBNs which are websites that have been created almost mainly for the sake of link building.
5. Why is guest posting still so popular? Is it so effective?
I think guest posting is very effective, but only if, in the first place, we’ll put what we truly want to pass to our readers in the guest post — not creating a guest post for the sake of having a link.
That's the fundamental difference between guest posting in favour of readers or guest posting in favour of “let's have a backlink”.
And it’s very easy to identify this because, you know, good websites will never be happy to post whatever, for the sake of having only a place to link out to the person who delivered a guest blog post.
And the websites which will be happy to post a quality piece of content will not be worried about linking or not linking to that website.
So, that's why guest posting is working. Besides, it's nice to invite some people to express their opinions, especially on a topic that is not like, you know, yet another article about how to write quality content, or what is SEO.
6. Do you know any examples of successful topics or types of content that usually do not require link building? Can we say that it's true what Google says: write great content and don't get busy with backlinks, good content will get links by itself.
I think that it’s partially true. I don't believe that great content will get links because it’s great. We are living in the era of social media when Gen Z is not really thinking of opening their website. They rather go opening their Tik-Tok profile, their Instagram profile, a Facebook page, or Facebook profile, Snapchat maybe, some others are active on LinkedIn. It’s no longer the 90s when people were hungry to have their own corner in the online environment.
I remember in the 90s it was something absolutely normal to put a friend’s website on the sidebar, small banners, or have a page called ‘Links’.
I once had a drum-and-bass website, it’s somewhere in the web archive. And I had this tab ‘Links’. And nobody was thinking that it could be for SEO purposes. It was a normal thing, like in a demo scene in the 90s and 80s, you’d say ‘greetings to’ and you were listing groups, and it was normal to greet other groups.
And in the 1990s and early 2000s, you had a page dedicated to links to your colleagues, friends, and other related websites which were operating in the same industry. It was something natural.
So, because of that, great content has less opportunity to get linked than it used to have in the past.
There are, indeed, areas where you can rank without links or many links.
I can give you an example — religion-oriented topics. Lots of people around the world are searching for this. The search volumes are very high, but there is very little competitiveness. And because of that, good content that is generating good behaviour signals, for a good website, fast and optimised, can rank quite well without even links or with a couple of links. So, religion-oriented websites would be one of the topics that don’t need many links or even any links at all in many cases.
But again, believing that good content today will get links itself is quite unusual.
One approach is to check keyword difficulty and SEO competition, the two metrics can be found in all popular SEO ranking tools. In Rank Tracker, there is a quick SERP Analysis tool that checks the top 50 ranking pages for a keyword and estimates its difficulty.
The metric takes into account the strength of the pages and domains, how many keywords they rank for, how much traffic they draw, how many other websites refer to them, and even the page speed (to measure this, you will need to generate a key from the PageSpeed API). The tool calculates the Keyword Difficulty score, which in Rank Tracker can be Hard or Very Hard. For example, we see the Keyword Difficulty of 40, which is not that hard.
And I wanted to mention one more thing.
For example, I’ve been recently searching for something about ginkgo biloba.
In the main part of the search results, we can see lots of these noisy, screaming articles which say: top 10 things you should know about ginkgo biloba; how ginkgo biloba will help you with this and that; why you should not forget about ginkgo biloba.
And every article is written the same way, what I call non-direct duplicated content. It's kind of like not duplicated word by word, but the message behind that content is pretty much the same.
And then, on top of the SERP, there are very small two links to scholarly articles. And these scholarly articles, written by some PHDs working somewhere in the universities, had so much more to say about ginkgo biloba because they were doing some research, some clinical tests, and so on.
But unfortunately, these articles will never be as popular as the other screaming articles. It’s like you have some scientific journal somewhere in the newsagents between many colourful newspapers and magazines that are talking about random stuff but have lots of colourful photos, and so on.
People will be choosing this kind of short, easy-to-read, maybe, not even that much informative content. And, on the other hand, this really-really deep content from the university is hidden somewhere on the top shelf, almost invisible.
And I bet this content has plenty of links from other university-based publications. But somehow it's not promoted by Google, it doesn't excite all the people who could potentially read this content.
Also, the form that the content is created in is very boring for today's audience, especially younger audiences. Because they look black and white, then paragraph-paragraph, some tables, and then more paragraph-paragraph.
So, in conclusion, once again, great content doesn't guarantee you backlinks and doesn’t even guarantee you good positions. However, there are niches, like I said about religion as an example, where you can rank quite well without worrying about backlinks.
7. In a company that does not have an in-house SEO, what is the best scheme to get new mentions? Are there interesting examples of brands with an out-of-the-box approach to brand PR?
I don’t feel I am a good person to answer this question because it's about creativity, and I prefer numbers and an analytical way of thinking about content rather than a creative one.
But there are plenty of examples when content can be interesting to the point that it will start having traction and mentions. But again, these mentions mainly circulate on social media rather than on websites.
So, first of all, it’s about the way that the content is built, the topic, and the moment of the year when we are publishing that content.
A very good example is the small website Worldometer which started publishing the stats about coronavirus from day one almost. They started to get millions and millions of views and advertising mainly because that content was resonating. It was not even a PR campaign.
I remember another example when we created a chapter that contained 250 pages “Best places to live in the UK”. And that ranking was done based on numbers, based on lots of different factors. That was not merely popular in the SERPs, not only it ranked high, but it also was caught by big publishers and online magazines, it got mentioned and linked, and so on.
But again, it was a big project, a big campaign, it was to assemble around 250 pages for all the counties and other areas in the UK. So, it wasn’t just a short article that somehow became viral, it was much harder.
Maybe, one more example. Another price-comparing website created an interesting, a bit gimmicky, but still very interesting campaign: how many characters died in popular movies that have been in the cinemas in the last 20-30 years? The highest number was for Star Wars, and the whole message was around life insurance.
I think, once again, I am not the best person to talk about PR campaigns and how to get new mentions because it's a very creative process that needs to be done. But every month, there are potentially at least a few campaigns that are generating lots of buzz.
By the way, when we are talking about buzz, Buzzsumo is a very good platform to see what resonates with the audience on social media.
Buzzsumo’s Content Analyzer is a great free feature to check what’s on the public mind at the moment. And with advanced features, you can see the split stats for Facebook, YouTube as well as check backlinks pointing to any domain or page.
And there is always some form of echo that may go into backlinks. But once again, predominantly, that would resonate on social media, which is not a straight line to backlinks.
8. Should there be any special tactic to raise awareness about a brand in different niches (let’s say, small shops, freelancers, local markets, etc.)?
As in the previous question, brand awareness is not my area of expertise, to be honest. But again, in the UK, there are plenty of examples of entities mixing their outdoor activities with online visibility. For example, Kazoo: they are very visible because they are visible in sports, they are visible in the streets, they are visible on taxis, on the outdoor billboard, on buses… It was the same with Zoopla because it was highly visible on social media, but also in the underground in London.
But when we are talking about smaller entities, like a small local shop, I think they definitely should use Google My Business and, potentially, some form of offline collaboration with other entities in the area. You know, a small local shop is probably next to a hairdresser, and the hairdresser is probably next door to a takeaway. And this is where I would start, I would not go immediately to advertising on the billboard.
Also, Facebook has a nice geolocalization. So, an isolated campaign in the area would also be potentially a good approach.
9. If a company decides to outsource its SEO and link building, how to differentiate between white-hat and black-hat link building services?
That’s a good question. I think the first thing is to ask how you are outreaching. Because there is a risk that the company may have so-called providers that have PBNs, and that's it.
When an agency is planning outreach, there should be a moment when the campaign owner, or the one who pays for the campaign, could review the websites that the agency wants to put links on. And that review should be very simple.
First of all, we need to check not even the authority of the website, but what the traffic is. How many keywords that website is ranking on? Does the website have a history?
If you end up with PBNs, these PBNs often don’t rank. Second, the quality of articles on PBNs is often extremely low. And third, it often happens that PBNs sit on very weird domains. Domains that are expired and then picked up by SEOs only because there are some backlinks. And checking in the web archive these names of domains would be my first stop to see what was before that.
SEO SpyGlass checks the “spamminess” of a domain based on the number of links it has, its age, its backlink history, and so on. The quality of backlinks is reviewed in the Backlink Profile where you can check the Penalty Score as well as historical links.
A helpful feature for link-builders is Bulk Analysis where you can add up to 200 domains and check them at once. Regarding the quality of each domain’s backlink profile, pay attention to the Domain InLink Rank that shows the strength of a site’s backlink profile.
Have more questions? Add a domain to competitors and get a more detailed overview in the Domain Comparison section.
Next, switch to Link intersection to inspect your competitors’ backlinks. Or create a project for each domain and get the full overview of its live backlink and backlink history.
Sometimes you can see that the domain was registered in 2020, but somehow in the web archive, there are enough entries as far back as 2003. And then you can see that the previous owner had something completely different. The links are about the initial topic, and then later we have a website about mobiles, gambling, etc., but the links in its backlink profile are still about the previous topic.
The first owner launched a website about, let’s say, living in Uganda, everything about food, how to get there, and so on. And then, at some point, they decided not to renew the domain, and the website expired. And then an SEO is coming, picking up the page about living in Uganda, and launching a mobile blog. It's already there on the domain, but as you can see in the archive, the present content and the previous content completely doesn’t match. And the same with backlinks.
So, that would be my advice on how to check if link building is white-hat or black-hat.
Besides, consider the ability to review if a company is transparent. Then, obviously, you are paying for the time they are spending to approach a website to outreach to the website owner and create this relationship rather than for the link per se.
11. Can we get by with free tools for link building? What tools would you call indispensable in the daily work of a link-builder?
One of the tools I really like is Semrush, especially the Backlink Gap Analyzer which, to some point, I believe was my idea because I was doing it manually before it was even in Semrush.
The way it works: it shows you what websites are linking to your competitors that you selected, and not to you. And if you see websites linking to three or four competitors simultaneously but not to you, there must be a way to approach and at least try to get them to link to you, too. Maybe, there is a way to create a profile or submit your website — it depends on the website. That’s one thing.
The other thing is LinkAssistant. I’m not necessarily saying that this is a tool for link building, but it’s a great tool for checking the quality of links, especially on the scale if the links are dofollow, and so on. That’s a part of LinkAssistant’s suite, others are SEO SpyGlass, WebSite Auditor, and Rank Tracker, and all the tools are working on your local machine. So, these two would be the most important for me.
LinkAssistant has three features cut out for link building and ensuring its quality. First, prospect research is done with keyword and location precision that allows researching link prospects for various purposes: guest posts or forums, popular blogs or citation websites, or anything else you’re looking for, limited to the niche and the country.
Second, there are in-built metrics to check the prospect quality: the domain age, Domain InLink Rank, overall domain traffic, popularity in social media, indexing in different search engines, and so on. Additionally, you’ll probably need some other traffic checker tools to get more precise numbers and backlink checkers to review the backlinks. The tool also shows the first page and the meta snippet of each discovered prospect and even provides an email address, if it is available on the resource.
Third, there is a backlink verification tool which checks that all your backlinks are in place, dofollow or nofollow, what anchor words point at your domain, and the like. If you notice that a link has been changed or removed, you can reach out to the linking website straight from the tool, using the template with a request to check the issue on the linking side.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these tips for doing white-hat link building, and I will be happy if you’ve found something to add to your current tactics. How about your experience with link building? Do you think that it is worthwhile to put effort into link building? What are your top three favourite tactics to build backlinks? We’ll be happy to know your opinion, let’s discuss it in our groups on Facebook and Twitter.