Link Building for Non-Scumbags: Build Authority Without Being Awful
(Editorial note: I originally published this on Hit Subscribe, and am going to gradually 301 the rest of the SEO/digital marketing content over there, where it makes more editorial sense. But I’ll keep cross-posting it here, if it seems like might be relevant to this audience. I’ll also keep posting miscellaneous rants and thoughts for indies and techies here.)
If the title here seems aggressive, my hope is that you’ll empathize with me by the time you’re done reading.
Throughout this post, I’m going to post screenshots of link building outreach I’ve received over the years. They’re not going to be relevant to the flow of the post, per se. Instead, I’m going to invite you on a walk with me through a digital garden of spam while I explain how to earn yourself backlinks without being terrible or hiring someone else to be terrible on your behalf.
You see, these screenshots represent how most link building outfits operate. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg of what I receive—just the ones funny enough to save.
Link Building: What It Is, Briefly
If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say link building, let’s start simply. What is link building?
Well, for SEO purposes, the more links you have from other sites to yours, the more search engines like your site, and they’ll rank your content accordingly. So link building is an activity wherein you specifically “encourage” the world to link to your site, through a variety of tactics. These tactics run the gamut from “create interesting content that people want to link” to “hack into some poor blogger’s WordPress instance and insert 40 million links before someone kicks you out and has you arrested.”
The Link Building State of the Art
Sadly, the state of the art in link building looks a lot more like the latter than the former.
If you go out and google link building, I’m sure you’ll hear from the world’s top SEO tool vendors. And I’m also sure that—caveated with appropriate cautions not to leverage underhanded, “black hat SEO” tactics and that the best approach is earning links via “good” content—they’ll encourage you to undertake an extremely outreach- (read: spam-) heavy approach, such as:
- Create a throwaway gmail address because boy are people going to report what you’re doing as spam.
- Create an email template wherein you beg for links or else mendaciously tell recipients that it’s in their best interest to link to you.
- Unleash that email template onto the blogosphere, like a firehose taking out a few butterflies on some flowers.
- If that doesn’t work, just try to bribe people.
- In parallel to all of that, offer filler content with links to your site as a guest post for other sites.
- If that doesn’t work, try to sneak content with links onto various sites.
- As a last resort, also bribe them to publish the filler content.
As you might imagine, these tactics yield a low success rate. And that means the only way to make them succeed is to execute them at incredibly high volume and low cost.
Why This Is a Problem for You
Let’s assume, for the moment, that you don’t have an issue with annoying people in bulk. Or perhaps you hire a link building vendor and think, “If I don’t know about it, I can tell myself it’s not happening.”
And I can earnestly sympathize with either position if your job or business is on the line. But there are issues that go beyond annoying people with email spam.
First, this type of thing can backfire if the search engines get wind of it. Paying directly for backlinks is what’s known as “black hat SEO” and runs afoul of fair play in trying to rank, theoretically resulting in penalties. And things like what this “best CI/CD tool” here is proposing—one-for-one link exchanges—are at best “gray hat SEO,” which might violate search engine terms.
So the firms doing this on your behalf, should they become too desperate, ham-fisted, or egregious about their efforts, can actually hurt more than help with SEO.
But the bigger issue is optics. In our world of developer marketing, for instance, the bloggers with high authority sites are often members of your target market with outsize influence among that same market. Do you really want to introduce yourself by spamming them?
At its peak, the DaedTech blog was pushing a million visits per year from software developers. That’s a LOT of impressions, should a given piece of spam annoy me enough to remove those strikeouts of the company’s name and put “the best CI/CD tool” on blast for spamming.
Backlinking Reconsidered: Our Philosophy
About a year and a half ago, I started to idly think about what it might look like to do things differently. What if you wanted to go out and get links to your site (or your clients’ sites), but on the subject of shoveling collateral annoyance into the world, we said, “Not today, Satan?”
We’d started a beta run of brokering sensible links among a handful of alpha clients for what would become our PR program. Basically, if client A mentioned a term that client B had defined on their site, we’d add a link, where non-competitive.
So we took this seed of a program and decided to start doing R&D and experiments, adhering to two core principles that counter the bad state of the art:
- We won’t do ANY broad outreach of any kind, let alone beg, bribe, wheedle, or attempt to trick anyone’s audience.
- We won’t do anything on anyone’s site or in anyone’s community that isn’t harmonious with the intended use of those venues.
In my career, I’ve found that creative constraints tend to give rise to innovation. My hope was that by limiting ourselves in this fashion, we might find a better state of the art that eventually competes with and surpasses the trash tactics endemic to this niche.
Our Learning: Concrete Backlinking Tactics for Non-Scumbags
Fast forward to today, and I’m pleased to say this proved effective. We began to apply our R&D efforts to what became a beta and eventually a general release offering for clients.
And during the course of that beta, we measured results and saw that our participating clients were gaining domain rating at roughly twice the clip of a non-participating control group of other clients. So we have strong signal that these tactics work, and we know for sure we’re not subjecting anyone to this one-two spam punch as an introduction to our clients:
For what it’s worth, here are some tactics that you can consider for your own efforts.
1. Hosting or Guesting on Podcasts
The podcast world involves a complex web of different sites and syndications. I’ve hosted and paneled on a few, and I’ve appeared on a bunch. So while I’m no expert, I knew enough to be dangerous and, more importantly, to turn the audio from my weekly freelance Q&A livestream for our community into a podcast.
If you want to start a podcast, there are three primary concerns to establish, and then you’ll be good to go.
- You need to host the podcast somewhere like, say, Podbean or Buzzsprout.
- You may want to create a website for the podcast, using something like Podpage or Podcastpage.
- Finally, you’ll need to distribute the podcast to as many venues and apps as possible, including but not limited to Spotify, Apple, Google, Amazon, PlayerFM, ListenNotes, iHeartRadio, etc.
It’s a bit of a project to set this up, but the hosts and site builders help you create a pretty turnkey setup. Once you’re established, you’re just uploading audio to your host, and the episodes make their way onto all kinds of different websites and venues.
Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that if you, say, link in the show notes to a recent article you’ve published on your site, you might earn yourself around 1,000 linking DR by uploading just a single episode.
If you don’t have any audio lying around or you don’t want to do all of that, no worries. Just appear as a guest on a few established podcasts, and their production operation will do this for you.
2. Creating Hosted Sites on High Authority Platforms
There are an awful lot of sites out there that are happy to host your content, especially if you pay. And some of those sites are also happy enough to host your content on a subdomain or even subdirectory of their own (high authority) domain.
Take the site write.as, for instance, which has a 70 domain authority (Moz) and a 79 domain rating (Ahrefs). Both of those are very high scores and represent the kind of links that would probably retail for at least $400 on the gray market for backlinks. Write.as will happily give you as many of these as you want for $6 per month.
There are countless sites like this, some of which are free and some of which have a nominal cost. Interestingly, almost all of them want to offer you mapping your own domain to the content as an upsell. No need, we’re good. We’ll happily use your domain and all of its domain authority/rating, even though we don’t mind paying.
The only intermediate-to-advanced thing that I would mention with this tactic is that you should make sure you’re linking to your hosted microsite from somewhere that’s indexed. Basically, you want to trigger Google to crawl the page linking to your microsite so that it will then crawl the microsite itself and find your backlink.
3. Cost Effective Presence Establishment
There are an awful lot of websites out there that exist just to serve as aggregators of websites and products. I generally think of these (and categorize them in our database) as index sites.
Some of them, like Hotfrog, are simply business catalogs. Others, like SaaSHub allow their users to rate, review, and compare your offering with others. There are still more oblique concerns, such as job boards or sites like Glassdoor.
These sites often confer follow links if you abide by their guidelines and submit your business. So going out and submitting to as many of these as possible has no downside. It’s why the sites exist, and it earns you backlinks.
But there are other, road-less-traveled opportunities here as well. For instance, check out this page on Leanpub, where I self-published one of my books, and my magnum rantus, Developer Hegemony. My profile comes with a 70 DA follow backlink to daedtech.com. Yours can too, if you create an account.
We’re building a large war chest of venues like this, and you can do that too. Or you can use ours, which we’re going to publish on the site at some point. In the meantime, feel free to email if you’re interested.
4. Create Content Glossaries
Shifting from the link side of the house over to content, let’s take a look at something that shifts the onus of earning links away from you. I’m talking here about the gold standard of link building, to which spammers pay lip service before spamming you. I’m talking about creating content on your site that attracts links.
Content glossaries are, for my money, the best way to do this.
Sure, creating some witty post or infographic that blows readers’ doors off with its awesomeness sounds great. But that’s kind of like chasing virality. Content glossaries, on the other hand, are much more workmanlike and likely to actually succeed.
We work with a number of clients on creating glossaries, but I wouldn’t want to play favorites here with a link. Since I’ve cited Atlassian’s “Agile Coach” for years and we had nothing to do with it, I’ll use that.
It’s a corpus of content that defines terms related to agile software development. Sprint, scrum, planning poker, retrospective—all that fun stuff. The glossary form makes it a series of well-organized definitions.
Why is this good for linking?
Well, when are you absolutely most likely to link to something, editorially speaking? I bet it’s when you want to offer a definition to your reader without interrupting your prose to define a term. And I bet that to do it, you google the term and pick one of the first few links to use.
Creating a content glossary is thus an excellent way to be conveniently there, a lot, when people are looking for a definition link.
5. Define Neologisms
I’m going to indulge in a tough of hypocrisy with this last one, but I hope you’ll bear with me anyway.
In the last section, I advised against chasing the dragon of link attractors in the form of infographics and such, likening that to chasing virality. This tactic—defining neologisms (new terms)—is a similar moonshot. However, unlike expensive infographics, this requires little cost and little effort outside of brainstorming.
I have a series called “SEO for Non-Scumbags,” and this article is called “Link Building for Non-Scumbags.” If I publish more in this series and the turn of phrase catches on, our site will serve as the original definition of a term that people use (and thus link to).
To show you this in action, I’m going to include the only non-spam image in the entire post.
Over a decade ago now, I wrote about an archetype that I dubbed the “expert beginner.” It’s about a person that exists in just about every organization of ICs of non-trivial size: the talented jerk. Except the expert beginner is curiously unique to software circles and is basically the talented jerk without the talent.
This categorization resonated in the software world and still, to this day, makes its way onto the front of Hacker News or Reddit probably once per year. And because the term became popular enough to enter the industry’s lexicon, here’s what the backlink profile to that article looks like:
For those keeping score at home, that cute term that I made up while on a walk with my wife earned 2,048 backlinks from 413 linking domains.
Caveat emptor, those results are not representative. But even a fraction of that is valuable, and all it costs you is a little free-form creativity to give it a shot.
You Can Build Links Without Being a Scumbag
I have several purposes in posting this. Most obviously, this is a service that we offer and have recently rolled out in general release, so I’m engaging in some pretty basic content marketing here.
I’m also helping to codify the principles behind and tactics in the program so that as we scale and continue our database building and R&D, we continue to stay true to the original concept. I’m not looking to create some kind of SEO version of Animal Farm.
But philosophically, I want to plant a flag that we don’t have to keep grinding along in the collective rut in which we find ourselves. You can build authority and traffic while satisfying your profit motive without being a scumbag and annoying people. And that’s really the ethos at the core of our program.
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Every month we send an email to friends and participants in the program, sharing at least three tactics/venues from our R&D efforts. You’re welcome to join them, and we’d love to have you.