15 Mar 2016

Link Development & Content Marketing: Why, When and How?

It’s a well known fact that acquiring high quality, relevant links to your website is an important part of an SEO strategy. But, what about your content marketing strategy? Does building links belong there as well? The answer is, yes! Content and links can’t function without one another. Links are the way people share and find content; together they make up the entire internet.

Despite its importance, link development is often a forgotten component of a content marketing strategy. Having a plan to acquire high quality, relevant links to your content has never been more important than now. According to Content Marketing Institute’s annual research, 50% of B2C marketers say they will increase their content marketing budget in 2016, compared to 51% of B2B marketers who said the same. Meaning, there will be even more high quality content created in the year to come.

So, how can you set your content apart?

One way to boost your content’s authority is through link-building. Link building, put simply, is the process of acquiring links from external websites to your site. Links are votes of popularity from one site to another; they’re indicators to search engines that someone has found something of value on your site. Something valuable enough to link to it.

Why acquire links?

If you’re still unsure whether developing a plan for link acquisition is right for your content marketing strategy, take a look at the possible benefits that links can have:

Links can increase organic traffic and referral conversions.

By creating more ways for visitors to access your content, you increase your odds of potential leads finding you. By tracking referral data in Google Analytics, you can cross reference the links that you’ve built with sources of referral traffic to identify which links are driving the most traffic and conversions for your business.

The graph below shows the impact that one link can have on your traffic and conversions. In this example, we built a link for a client on a reputable news source within an article that was extremely relevant to our client’s site. This one link was able to drive 128 new visitors, and 10 conversions over the course of a few months time.


Google Referral Traffic

Manual outreach can help to gain insight and feedback.

Through manual link outreach, you are often starting conversations with others in your industry. It’s amazing what people will tell you about your content if you ask, sometimes even when you don’t. If you can identify common objections to your link outreach, you can also identify possible issues with your content.

It's amazing what people will tell you about your content if you ask. Click To Tweet

Sometimes a small improvement can create superior content. For example, if one of the common objections to your outreach is that your content is “too promotional or branded,” it might be as simple as changing your call to action, or toning down mentions of your brand within the content. Try to track feedback you receive during link outreach as it can be of value to the the continuous improvement of your content.  This can be done simply by keeping a spreadsheet of suggestions and feedback you receive during outreach, or making a separate folder in your inbox for responses that could be helpful.

Links can boost your content’s rankings

It’s a common goal in both SEO and content marketing to have content rank highly in the SERPs for intended keywords or search queries. In a recent study by Backlinko, 1 million search results were analyzed to measure correlating factors for first page rankings. Their findings supported that the number of linking domains to a page positively correlated with its rankings, meaning that increasing the number of authoritative referring domains to your site can positively impact your rankings.

Ranking and Referring Domain Comparison

Source: Backlinko

The key word here is authoritative. Google’s Penguin algorithm update worked to discount spammy, unnatural links, making it harder for black hat SEO’s to abuse link-building through unnatural tactics. This is a great thing for those of us acquiring links the right way, however, it makes having a strategy for link development even more important.

Won’t content just earn links?

Link earning is a very similar term to link-building, however, link earning differs in its assumption that if your content deserves links, it will earn links naturally. Yes, high quality content on it’s own will gain some backlink momentum, but there is still a need to promote and distribute content, especially if your site is newer.

You can’t assume that just because people are sharing or engaging with your content that it will also get links. BuzzSumo and Moz paired up to analyze the links of 750,000 well-shared posts. They found that 50% of those well-shared posts had zero external backlinks. This implies that it’s much easier to obtain social shares than it is to obtain backlinks, and that just because you promote socially doesn’t mean backlinks will come from that effort. The image below is a great representation of this, while some content falls in that “sweet spot” for both links and shares, most has no correlation.

Links and Shares Comparison

Source: Moz

That’s where manual link outreach becomes hugely important. After you’ve created content worthy of linking to, then make link acquisition a part of your promotional strategy.

When to think about links

Unlike the “chicken or the egg” conundrum, there is a clear answer to what comes first between links and content. Content comes first, always. A primary part of content marketing’s definition is based on providing useful information to your visitors, so hopefully you’ve already got content on your mind. If you haven’t built a foundation of content yet, then now might not be the best time to start building links.

Before jumping in to create a link development strategy, ask yourself the following question: is my content worthy of links?

Ask yourself the following question: is my content worthy of links? Click To Tweet

It’s tough to be unbiased about this—it’s very easy, and common, to think that your content is “link-worthy” when it may not be. Not all content will perform well for links, and that’s okay! Not all content should perform well for links. But what content is more likely to? Let’s take a look.

Content that is likely to be linked to is:

  • In-depth. Creating long form content that is well researched, in depth, and covers a specific topic is best for gaining both links and rankings. In the previously mentioned study done by Moz and BuzzSumo, their findings supported that content receives more shares and links if it is 1000+ words. Searchmetrics’ research on ranking factors found that the average word count for pages ranking in the top 10 was 1285. There is no magic number, but the data leans towards long form content being beneficial for both links, shares and rankings.
  • Useful. If visitors can take something away from your website and put it to use, then they are far more likely to share and link to that content. Great examples of this type of content are checklists, white papers, free guides, infographics, templates and other practical content forms. And again, the more in-depth the better.
  • Not self serving. People rarely want to share a sales pitch. Develop content that serves others, not yourself. It’s extremely hard to pitch your services page, or other promotional pages to a webmaster in an effort to build links. You’ll face a lot of objections that way. That’s not to say that having detailed content answering questions about your specific services or products isn’t essential. It is. But, the content that performs best for link development is usually not at the decision stage of the buyer’s journey, where your product or service information tends to live.

People linking to your site have found your content to be comprehensive, valuable and non promotional.

How to create a link development strategy

As with any other component of content marketing, link development requires a plan of action. It takes a finely tuned process for link development to be most successful. Here are six key questions to consider when creating a link development process.

Who will build the links?

You’ll want to figure out who will be building links for your site; is it you, a teammate, or an external expert?. If you’re looking to designate this to one of your current team members or add someone to your team, then we find that people who have some sales experience tend to have the best match of skill set. Primarily, because this work requires prospecting, pitching and organizational skills that usually go hand in hand with that type of work.

What linkable assets does your site have?

It’s best to go into link development with a clear plan for what content you hope to leverage in your outreach. Choose which pieces of content you would really like to focus your efforts on. We’ll call these your “linkable assets.” Remember these are often not your products or services pages unless you are looking to find unlinked brand mentions of your business.

What goals do you hope to achieve with link development?

There are tons of great reasons to build links, but try to define a primary goal of your efforts. Maybe that goal is simply to increase the number of high quality referring domains to your site, or to increase your brand awareness. Knowing what you want to accomplish will help you determine what types of opportunities you should pursue.

Define a primary goal of your efforts: why are you acquiring links? Click To Tweet

What is your link quality criteria?

Set a baseline for quality of the sites you will be reaching out to. You don’t want your site to be linked from “bad neighborhoods,” or in other words, spammy or low quality sites. Three simple steps to QC an opportunity before reaching out are:

  1. Do a site search for spammy keywords such as “payday loans” “porn” “pills” or “online casino.” If there is spam present on the site, then avoid it. You don’t want your site associated with that.
  2. Download the Moz Bar and check the site’s metrics. The higher the domain authority of the linking site, the better. Also if the specific page you are hoping to have link to you holds authority, that’s another great indicator of quality.
  3. Do a relevance check. Is the domain relevant to your industry… what about the page?  Relevancy matters in the eyes of search engines, and users.  If the link wouldn’t make sense for the audience of the page, then it probably doesn’t belong there.

At Vertical Measures, we qualify links by looking at all of the above to ensure they are quality. We also have a checklist that we use to determine how likely a link from a specific site might be. While no (natural) link is 100% guaranteed, if a site meets at least 2 of the following criteria, it may be more likely to link to your site.

  • Outbound Links: External links are listed on the page.
  • Similar Links: There are related websites linked on the page (EDU, commercial sites, etc).
  • Brand Mention: Your brand is mentioned on the page.
  • General Website Relevancy: The theme of the website is related to the content being pitched.
  • Competitors: There are direct competitors of yours listed on the page, and no affiliation between them and the site.
  • Locality: The page is local to your business, and it makes sense for a link to be present.

Link Development Checklist

How will you track outreach and follow up?

It can be hard to track what sites you’ve reached out to, and whether they’ve responded. It’s best to keep a log of of this information. Below is a simple example of how you can set up an outreach tracking sheet. Log important info like site metrics, date you reached out, the contact you emailed and any notes. This makes things easier to follow up and also to measure results of your efforts. Also, color coding can help you differentiate sites that have put up your links, declined your request, or have not yet responded. Here’s a screenshot of a link acquisition tracking sheet we’ve used for Vertical Measures. Want to use this template for your own acquistion tracking? Get it here.

Link Prospecting Worksheet

How will you measure your results?

Based on your defined goals, develop a plan for measuring the results of your work. Ideally you should be monitoring Google Analytics data for traffic, tracking changes in your site’s authority, and monitoring for keyword rankings. Other measurement efforts will all depend on what you were hoping to accomplish from the beginning.

Know that link development isn’t a short term plan; it’s an ongoing, long-term process and it takes time to figure out what works and to see results. As more and more marketers turn their eyes to content marketing, links will continue to be a factor in how search engines analyze content’s popularity. So, leave a seat at the table for links in your content marketing strategy; they’re not going anywhere.

Know that link development isn't a short term plan; it's an ongoing, long-term process. Click To Tweet